The Sneaking Regarders of Dixie

A culture that believes that it is somehow acceptable to fly the Confederate Battle Flag outside a state capitol is a racist one. A culture that only took down the Confederate Battle Flag from atop the state capitol a few years ago in the face of national outrage, is a racist one. A culture that cannot see the symbolism - a "fuck you" to the Civil Rights Movement - behind why the flag was hoisted above the capitol in 1963 or thereabouts, is a racist one. Attempts to portray it as anything other are simply apologias, witting or otherwise, for racism.

The racism might be subtle, as it often is. And it might have a veneer of respectability, as it sometimes may have: the "We are only remembering our war dead and the Southern way of life, not slavery" sort of cognitive dissonance you got in that sort of nonsense David French wrote in National Review Online. But at the end of the day, unintentionally or not, support for the Confederate flag is an expression of support for a racist way of life.

Apologists for the flag ignore history when they give significance to the fact that what is popularly flown is not the 'national' flag of the Confederate States of America, but rather the Battle Flag. This proposition overlooks the fact that the Battle Flag was always more popular, even during the lifetime of the racist and treasonous Confederacy.
Dukes of Hazzard

The Confederate States of America had three different 'national' flags during its short existence; the first change came "on account of [the flag's] resemblance to that of the abolition despotism against which we are fighting." The replacement was the Battle Flag on a white background.

First Flag of the Confederacy

First Flag of the Confederacy

Second Flag of the Confederacy

Second Flag of the Confederacy

Third Flag of the Confederacy

Third Flag of the Confederacy

Flag of Georgia, 1956-2001

Flag of Georgia 1956-2001

Flag of Georgia, 2003-present

Flag of Georgia since 2001

Spot the difference? Answers on a postcard to:

The Governor
The Governor's Mansion
Atlanta GA 30305

One of the most irritating, and pointless, arguments frequently trotted out in relation to the role of slavery in the American Civil War is the question/idea that "if the war was about slavery, why did Lincoln wait years to free the slaves?/ending slavery was not the reason why the Civil War started." The latter statement happens to be true; it is also totally irrelevant. The North didn't start the Civil War - the Southern slave states did by attempting to secede. And why did they attempt to secede? Because they feared the "abolitionist despotism" of Lincoln and the Republican Party. They were scared that attempts would be made to abolish slavery. Saying the war wasn't over slavery because the North didn't go to war to end slavery is like saying the First Opium War wasn't about imperialism, because the Chinese didn't go to war to end British imperialism.

Another canard frequently trotted out is that it was the Southern 'Way of Life', Gone With the Wind style (see here for a reminder of how racist that book actually is), that is being mourned in displays of the Battle Flag. Well of course whites in the South were able to have a gentlemanly and mannerly lifestyle, because it was paid for by the enslavement of African-Americans! John C. Calhoun made it clear in his writings that slavery was not just a necessary evil, it was a positive good that reduced class distinctions among white people, as they could all unite in white supremacism and superiority over the black untermensch. It was not just the Southern economy that depended on the enslavement of blacks, so too did the entire system of "genteel" social norms.

Similarly, the idea that "my ancestors didn't have slaves - they were too poor to own them" is about as convincing as the descendants of a Waffen SS officer claiming their ancestor bore no responsibility for the Holocaust because they are pretty sure he didn't personally send any Jews, gypsies, communists or gays to a death camp. Just because your ancestors didn't own slaves because they were too poor to buy one doesn't mean they didn't aspire to being rich enough to have a barnful. And it certainly doesn't mean that they did not support, and fight for, the continuance of the social and economic system that would, one day, hopefully, make possible their vision of the American dream - a cotton plantation full of "field niggers", and a few in the house to keep them comfortable. This dream drove them to commit treason against the United States of America.

Justification for secession was dressed up in the language of "states' rights", and apologists for the Confederacy claim to this day that this was the primary motivating factor. Worryingly, they seem to be winning the battle for public opinion: in a Pew poll a few years ago, 48% of Americans named "states' rights" as the primary cause of the Civil War; 38% named slavery. Thankfully, though, we don't have to depend on apologists for the Confederacy to help us understand why states seceded: most of them laid out their "causes" in black and white, so assured were they that they would receive a sympathetic hearing. Here's what the first state to secede, South Carolina had to say on the matter:

The people of the State of South Carolina, in Convention assembled, on the 26th day of April, A.D., 1852, declared that the frequent violations of the Constitution of the United States, by the Federal Government, and its encroachments upon the reserved rights of the States, fully justified this State in then withdrawing from the Federal Union; but in deference to the opinions and wishes of the other slaveholding States, she forbore at that time to exercise this right. Since that time, these encroachments have continued to increase, and further forbearance ceases to be a virtue...

We maintain that in every compact between two or more parties, the obligation is mutual; that the failure of one of the contracting parties to perform a material part of the agreement, entirely releases the obligation of the other; and that where no arbiter is provided, each party is remitted to his own judgment to determine the fact of failure, with all its consequences.

In the present case, that fact is established with certainty. We assert that fourteen of the States have deliberately refused, for years past, to fulfill their constitutional obligations, and we refer to their own Statutes for the proof.

The Constitution of the United States, in its fourth Article, provides as follows: "No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up, on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due."

This stipulation was so material to the compact, that without it that compact would not have been made.1 The greater number of the contracting parties held slaves, and they had previously evinced their estimate of the value of such a stipulation by making it a condition in the Ordinance for the government of the territory ceded by Virginia, which now composes the States north of the Ohio River.

The General Government, as the common agent, passed laws to carry into effect these stipulations of the States. For many years these laws were executed. But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution. The States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, have enacted laws which either nullify the Acts of Congress or render useless any attempt to execute them. In many of these States the fugitive is discharged from service or labor claimed, and in none of them has the State Government complied with the stipulation made in the Constitution. The State of New Jersey, at an early day, passed a law in conformity with her constitutional obligation; but the current of anti-slavery feeling has led her more recently to enact laws which render inoperative the remedies provided by her own law and by the laws of Congress. In the State of New York even the right of transit for a slave has been denied by her tribunals; and the States of Ohio and Iowa have refused to surrender to justice fugitives charged with murder, and with inciting servile insurrection in the State of Virginia. Thus the constituted compact has been deliberately broken and disregarded by the non-slaveholding States, and the consequence follows that South Carolina is released from her obligation.

Clearly, it is true that South Carolina complained a lot about states' rights, but a state's right to do what? To continue the institution of slavery! To have runaway slaves returned! The Palmetto state even complained that New York has refused the right of transit for slaves; a Charleston gentleman wishing to take his slave with him to take in the fall colors in upstate New York no longer had the right to do so. If the Civil War was truly about states' rights, did New York, a free state, not have the right to refuse slave transit within its territory? Did New Jersey not have the right to pass laws that rendered inoperable earlier laws that it had passed? It would appear that slave-holders believed that it was only their states that had the right to autonomy.

And what were the laws that South Carolina was complaining that the Northern states were refusing to uphold? The Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850. Under the latter public officials of free states were required to arrest suspected runaway slaves, and anyone who offered food or shelter to a runaway slave faced a fine of up to $30,000 in today's money, and up to 6 months in prison. An affidavit from a white man was all that was needed to require the arrest of any black man or women, slave or free, on suspicion of being a runaway. Under the 1850 law, blacks were not permitted to give evidence, or call witnesses, and had no right to a trial by jury. The judge hearing the case received a double fee if he found that the "negro" was indeed a runaway.

This all may sound rather familiar.

Other states were rather more forthcoming than South Carolina, whose gallant-sounding claims about states' rights and the law were just fig leaves for the underlying issue: slavery.

Civil War Trust chart on the causes of secession Source: the Civil War Trust

A failure to recognize that the "Southern way of life" was built on the backs, blood, sweat, and tears of enslaved human beings, African-Americans, is a failure to come to terms with the history of the South. Almost everything that David French wrote about why Southerners fought and why their descendants might want to honor them could also have been said about Germans post-1945, except the fact that Nazi emblems are illegal in Germany. A closer parallel is Japan.

A Japanese Consul General in Atlanta in the 1960s once remarked that he felt quite at home there, because people in the South, like the Japanese, carried the hurt at having been defeated at war. The Japanese attitude towards World War II is often ambiguous, and there is a strong right-wing element in Japanese society that sees Japan as a victim in WWII, just as many in the South see the "War of Northern Aggression". Unlike Germany, Japan in the 1930s and 1940s did not have a different flag, but if it did, and the Japanese government flew it from the Yasukuni Shrine, American ex-servicemen, their families and politicians from Louisiana to North Carolina would be lining up to condemn it as an insult to America's war dead. Can you imagine the outrage if it flew over Tokyo City Hall? But it's ok to have variants of the Confederate flag in the state flags Mississippi and Georgia, and to fly the Confederate Battle Flag outside the statehouses in Charleston and Tallahassee, because it is in the tradition of "honoring [our] war dead and extolling a culture of military valor", apparently.

You can dress it up all you want, but the continued embrace of the Confederacy and its emblems and symbols, sends a nudge-nudge wink-wink to those who hold more extreme views that they are in the company of many who have, what they used to call in Ireland in reference to terrorism, a "sneaking regard" for what it represents. You could never say it in public, but you wouldn't rush to the phone to call the Police either, if you saw something suspicious. "Whatever you say, say nothing", as they say in Belfast.

But more importantly, there is a need to recognize the fact that "the Southern way of life" was a racist way of life that was paid for and facilitated by the enslavement of African-Americans. When you celebrate and commemorate it, that is what you are celebrating and commemorating.

Say no more. Know what I mean?

1. This also appears to be false. There was very little debate on the issue, and after it was rejected once it was later sneaked back in with no subsequent debate.