In the wake of the Charleston shootings, a call has gone out – “Remove the Confederate flag!” To a segment of the American population, the flag represents oppression, hatred, racism, and an era, which has no place in today’s society. With crowds chanting for the removal of the flag, and as politicians now enter the debate, one feels we are getting closer to a “Tear down that wall” moment. Removing the flag from the capitol would be a significant symbolic gesture, construed as a step forward in race relations and a reconstituting of the South’s mission in the civil rights discussion. For many, the flag’s removal represents the progress we so desire in this country.
Like all rights discussions though, there are other arguments to examine.
We are a nation, which prides itself on tolerance. Does the removal of the flag symbolize tolerance of all peoples, or intolerance of the Confederacy’s role in American history?
Throughout our stay on these fruited plains, Americans have taken lands from Indian tribes, taken freedom from African American populations, taken property from Mexican populations. When the European settlers conquered the American territory, it erased the successes and contributions from these cultures. As with all archives, the winners wrote the history.
Hundreds of years later, these groups still fight to re-establish their heritage in American society. They ask for remuneration, for restitution, for recognition of their role in forging the foundation of this country. The “losers” demand to be recognized for what they contributed to the nation’s prosperity. Would obliterating the symbol of the South, albeit offensive to many of today’s Americans, be the equivalent of the winners writing the history?
The South is filled with passionate folks who see the Confederate flag as a symbol of State’s rights. “It’s a symbol of family and my ancestors who defended the state from invasion. It was about standing up to a central government,” said Chris Sullivan, who is a member of the Sons of the Confederacy. “The things that our ancestors fought for were not novel and they really are the same issues we have today.”
Are the winners now becoming the oppressors? When the minority becomes the majority, who protects the rights of the new minority? In a hundred years, will we look back and speak of restitution for the Confederacy’s descendants?
Every symbol represents different things to different people. Think about McDonald’s golden arches. For some, it is sustenance. For others, death.
Then again, perhaps the issue is dead, gone the way of “The Earth is flat” and “Alcohol is illegal.” Maybe the confederacy’s cultural heritage is simply no longer viable, no longer true, and therefore no longer requiring a venue for expression. Maybe we, as a society, have left the notions of slavery, segregation and divisiveness for a new age of compassion, and embracing otherness, and tolerance. Maybe an evolving society looks at offensive symbols from the past as representative of an era of ignorance and injustice – see the Nazis.
Of course, that leaves open questions about the symbols of Stalin, of Mao, of Guevara. In hopes of evolving our society, should we obliterate these names and symbols from the pages of history?
It is said, we stand on the shoulders of those who come before us, and that even if we don’t like what they stood for, they taught us that stability comes from correcting failed foundations. Are we now turning history into the Venus de Milo?
So, what do we do with this flag? To some it represents enslavement. To others, it symbolizes a quest for freedom. Perhaps we should fly it at half-mast – for a nation which has lost, and continues to lose, something on its behalf.