So the Stars and Bars is coming down from the South Carolina statehouse to the accompaniment of whooping and hollering by breast-beating politicians. If you have the stomach, you can watch some of it here. Now, sure as clockwork, politicians are tripping all over each other to get on the bandwagon. Flags are coming down all throughout the South. You can no longer buy them on Amazon or at Walmart, although at this writing they’re still seen on eBay. Statues of Confederate heroes are in danger of being ground up for use as concrete aggregate.
What’s the meaning of the Confederate flag, anyway? It depends whom you ask. It means nothing to me. To some white Southerners, it’s a reminder of their brave forbears’ fight for their honor. To many blacks, perhaps most, it’s a symbol of hate. Who’s right? All of the above; none of the above—it’s whatever you want to make of it. What’s disturbing is the widespread ignorance of what the Civil War was about. It was about secession, first and foremost, and only secondarily about slavery. Lincoln freed the slaves as a tactical matter, and only in the re-conquered Southern states, and not until two years into the war. Before the war he made it quite clear that his goal was to preserve the union, and if freeing the slaves would further that goal, he would free them, and if not, not.
It is the height of oversimplification to cast the rebels as bad guys and the yankees as good guys. There were many acts of kindness between whites and blacks on both sides of the line and of course, many atrocities on both sides. This doesn’t justify slavery the least little bit. But the war was the wrong way to end it. If the South had been allowed to go its way, 600,000 lives plus uncounted misery and destruction would have been averted. Slavery would not have lasted much longer in the South for economic and moral reasons. One economic reason is that the best slaves would have escaped to the North where they would no longer fear being deported. The gradual mechanization of farms is another. On the moral front, although ideas moved more slowly in those days, thoughtful Southerners would gradually come to see slavery as abominable and indefensible. (Highly recommended: Jeff Hummel’s groundbreaking revisionist treatment of the war, “Freeing the Slaves, Enslaving Free Men.”)
I take their word for it that blacks see the flag as a symbol of oppression. Given that, I would have to agree with the action in South Carolina notwithstanding the insult to Southern pride. But I’m not so naïve as to believe race relations will improve as a result. In fact, I fear they’ll get worse. If the flag wasn’t a symbol of racial animosity before, it is now. Positions will be hardened. White Southern conservatives, having recently taken a beating on gay marriage, will be further marginalized and polarized. The “progressives,” having smelled blood, will be on the warpath (oops—is that word racially insensitive?). They’ll be out on search-and-destroy missions, hunting down vestiges of Southernism.
My humble suggestion: let’s not get so worked up about symbols, whether they’re flags, crosses, Mohammed cartoons, or even the dollar sign on the last page of Atlas Shrugged.