How Confederate flags should have been taken down

Over the past few years there have been many calls to take Confederate flags (almost always the battle flag) down from places of public display, and most of those calls have been successful. (This also applies to likenesses of Confederate war heroes, famous slave owners, other Confederate icons and imagery, etc. but here I’ll just refer to it all in shorthand as the Confederate flag.)

The display of the Confederate flag has predictably become yet another point of contention in America’s culture war. Those opposed to the display of the flag express powerful emotional reasoning, claiming the flag is a symbol of slavery, hate, and oppression, and personally I have to say that’s hard to argue with. That’s what those people really feel, and those are powerful feelings. And let’s be honest, there really is a note of aggression in flying the Confederate flag.

An even more persuasive argument, but one used far less often, is that the Confederacy lost the war, so in the same way as we shouldn’t still have British flags flying in any of the original 13 state capitals, we shouldn’t have the Confederacy’s flag flying in capitals the South.

But the anti-flag people missed something important: to a pro-flag Southerner, the Confederate flag means other things. Important things. It is a symbol of resistance, at the state level, to Federal meddling — thus the nickname “Rebel flag”. It’s a memorial to ancestors who fought bravely and in many cases died for their homeland. It’s a symbol of pride in the unique culture and heritage of the South — only a small part of which involved slavery — one that is disappearing with urbanization and globalization. And it’s a symbol of love for the Southern land itself.

(An anti-flag person might respond that this sentimental portrait of the flag was only created in the last 100 years or so, which is true to some extent: there was a revival of Southern nostalgia at the turn of the 20th century, accompanied by a resurgence in display of the Confederate flag. But that was still a hundred years ago, so the nostalgia and pride many Southerners today feel when they see that flag is no less real than the horror and outrage felt by others when they see it.)

Whenever anti-flag people have demanded the Confederate flag be taken down, they are saying (inadvertently in some cases, deliberately in others) “You don’t matter. Your history doesn’t matter. Your regional culture doesn’t matter. Your heroes don’t matter. Go away.” And that has garnered the response anyone would expect it to get.

What they should have done was pay attention to people who display the flag accompanied with the slogan “Heritage not hate” and taken a cue from them. Offer a replacement symbol that could stand for all the good things the flag represents to people, while expressly omitting or disavowing slavery. The flag should have been taken down in a way that said “You fought honorably. You sacrificed for your homeland. History is troubled and slavery is evil but you have plenty besides that to be proud of. Let’s mend old wounds and continue on united.” The flags might have come down peacefully that way.

But of course I don’t think that’s what the loudest anti-flag people really wanted. They wanted the outcome they got.

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