The Flag Mess, or “Cannot Deny Our Heritage”

1 07 2015

Nathan Deal is a putz. He’s dancing around removal of the Confederate Battle Flag and cessation of state recognition of Confederate Memorial Day, just like he refused to come out for or against the school in Georgia that held its first integrated prom in 2013. I guess he’s done the math and realizes that pandering to racists is political money in the bank for him. Or maybe he’s just a racist himself. That’s incendiary, I know, but there’s a real problem with his whole “we can’t deny our heritage” line, and it is that, to a great extent, what he’s advocating there is a fundamental denial of “our” heritage. At the risk of Godwinning myself, let me talk about the Nazis…

Well, no – that’s getting ahead of myself. Let me talk first about a man I respect, a deep-blue liberal fighting the good fight out in Page County, VA. He’s a passionate Democrat, and I have no reason to believe that he’s a racist, and he recently offered an explanation of the “heritage, not hate” argument that almost made sense to me. He pointed out that lots of Confederate soldiers weren’t slaveholders, and they weren’t necessarily entirely up to date on what the war was about. In their eyes, their homes and families were being threatened by an external force, and they stood up to protect them. That’s noble, right? Standing in defense of your loved ones is pretty universally a good thing. Isn’t it reasonable to want to honor their sacrifice?

Well, yes and no. See, their motives may have been pure. It’s entirely possible that there were staunch abolitionists in the Confederate Army, men who believed whole-heartedly that black people deserved to be free, and maybe even equal citizens, but that belief came in second behind protecting their homes and families against an immediate threat. They may have even bristled under the situation, aware they’d been manipulated into that position by the powerful elites. This is all entirely possible. With the numbers involved, I’ll go so far as to say it was probable.

But there were swell Nazis, too.

Think about it – was every single Nazi soldier a deranged storm trooper who lived only to brutalize the innocent, driven by a pure violent hatred of Jews and nothing else? Of course not. There were Nazi soldiers who were just trying to protect their families. There are examples of the rank-and-file of both sides of the conflict behaving kindly to each other, displaying shared humanity in the midst of unprecedented awfulness. Many, maybe even most of them were not the monsters we tend to think of when we think “Nazi.” And yet, we don’t see people who fly the Nazi flag and tell themselves they’re not Aryan supremacists. It doesn’t fly over government buildings in Germany. No one says “I hate what Nazism stood for and fought for – I’m just proud of Great Grandpa Fritz. Heritage, not hate.” It doesn’t happen.

Why is that? Because we all recognize that the cause of Nazism was too evil to be elided in service of valorizing those who served it, even when they served with unimpeachable valor. For some reason, we as a nation have steadfastly refused to come to the same obvious conclusion about the cause of the Confederacy. Even if we assume the most pure of motives on the part of those who continue to fly the flag and celebrate Confederate Memorial Day (which I have a very hard time doing), for their motives to be pure, they have to ignore the facts of history.

All that said, I actually agree with that consummate putz Nathan Deal. We can’t deny our heritage. We shouldn’t deny our heritage. We should, however, stop acting like that particular part of our heritage is anything to be proud of or celebrate. We should acknowledge it and be truthful about it, and we should maintain the relics that symbolized and continue to symbolize the cause of inhumanity, cruelty, and bigotry. We should place them in museums that explain slavery and the war in painful detail. These museums should acknowledge that many people throughout history have been manipulated into supporting racist and unfair structures through no real racial animus of their own (at least at the outset – even half-hearted service to a cause will bring about identification with that cause over time) and that those people weren’t monsters, but it should never absolve anyone of the wrong of the structures themselves.

What’s more, we can’t let this (ridiculous) discussion (that should have begun and ended with “Hey, should we take down that flag?” “Yeah, we should – why is it flying in the first place?”) become the “solution” to the recent increased focus on racism. The flag is a powerful symbol, and removing it and other monuments to the Confederacy is a similarly powerful and symbolic and should happen immediately, but it’s a tiny step, not the end of the journey. We Americans have a very bad habit of putting on our shoes and immediately declaring the long hard hike completed. We make a relatively paltry symbolic move and say “Look at this great thing we did! Now everything is perfect forever. Boy, we’re just amazing, aren’t we?” Let’s take down the flags and the statues and the street names. Let’s put them in honest, unflinching museum exhibits. Let’s engage in learning the truth about our heritage. Let’s not act like that’s all that needs to be done.



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