Monday, June 29, 2015

Corrupted Symbols

Discussions about the display of the Confederate Battle Flag are widespread, heated, and controversial.  This discussion has been recently brought to prominence following the shootings of nine churchgoers in Charleston, SC.  The murderer had previously posted many photographs of himself honoring the Confederate flag.  And the flag flies on the Capitol Grounds of the very State in which the massacre occurred.

To many Southerners, the flag has been a symbol of respect for the Southern men who fought and died during the American Civil War, and for the sacrifices of the loved ones left at home.  In some states, the flag is incorporated into the State Flag.

As a child growing up in the South, I never thought much about the flag.  I passed the statue of the Confederate soldier on the courthouse grounds without a second thought.  I strongly suspect that my black brothers and sisters did not regard it in the same way.  But I was just a child.  We sang "Dixie" with gusto in school and proudly proclaimed our Southern heritage by naming ancestors who fought in the war.  When I went off to college, the television station in Raleigh, NC, ended its programming not with the National Anthem but with a moving rendition of "Dixie."  And still I gave little thought to the use of Civil War songs and flags.

I was in my mid-twenties when I truly appreciated how corrupt this symbol of the South had become.  And when a symbol becomes so corrupt, its original intention is totally lost and can never be regained.

Take the swastika, for example.  For more than 3,000 years, this cross was seen as a symbol of life, power, and especially good luck.  Buddhist and Hindu religions considered versions of the swastika as powerful and meaningful religious symbols.

In the 1920s Adolf Hitler decided the swastika would be a perfect insignia for the rising Nazi Party.  It became their flag and adorned their uniforms.  It was used so successfully that within a few short years, 3,000 years of historical significance were erased from most memories.  Few people recalled any other use of the swastika than as a symbol for Hitler and the Nazis.  A symbol so corrupted it would never be used in its original context again.

Photograph from the Internet

In a similar manner, the Confederate Battle Flag has become corrupted and is seen by many as a symbol of racial prejudice.  (And NO, I am not comparing the Civil War with the Nazi regime.)  The flag can no longer  be considered only a symbol dedicated to the Civil War dead, and it hasn't been for some time.  It has been corrupted and the meaning has forever changed.  When I was in middle school, the history books in the South taught that the American Civil War was fought not over slavery but over States rights.  That is pretty much hogwash.  However, it is true that many, if not most of the Confederate soldiers from North Carolina and some other states were not fighting for slavery.  They were fighting because their State and their countrymen were at war.  More than half the soldiers killed at Gettysburg were from North Carolina.  Should we not honor their bravery?  Yes, we should honor them.  But not with the Confederate Flag.

Photograph from the Internet

I do not personally know anyone who displays the Confederate Flag.  But I do see the flag with regularity here in the mountains.  Sometimes it is at a house.  More often it is on a pickup truck.  And we have NC specialty license plates using the flag for "Sons of the Confederacy."  [It is of note that NC also has specialty license plates for almost every university, club, or profession you can imagine.]  Seeing the Confederate Flag displayed like this brings certain negative feelings to my mind.  I can only imagine how much those feelings are magnified when my black friends view it.

So, the Confederate Battle Flag is such a corrupted symbol that it cannot be displayed any longer in public places.  Obviously I am in favor of anyone's right to display the flag on his or her personal property.  But I would encourage them to think about the message it may send about them.

So let's take down the flag.  But let's not try to erase history.  Americans in the North and in the South suffered and died during the Civil War.  It happened and is part of the making of our union.

Several Confederate monuments have recently been vandalized with spray paint.  I fear such extreme reactions will be met with equal or worse reactions from white supremacists.  Already several black churches have burned by arsonists.  Such actions from these racialists minimizes the egregious killings of those nine innocent people and gives credence to the desires of their killer.

So fellow Southerners, keep the Confederate Flag and other Civil War memorabilia if you wish, but keep them in the privacy of your own home or in museums.  Not in public places.  The time has come to take down the Confederate Flag from all public forums.  It is too corrupt a symbol.


Lowcarb team member said...

We do seem to be living in very unsettled times at the moment, and many of the news stories are not always good.

However, I do my best to try and find positive stories that happen locally and within the community. There are good people out there who do think of others and want to help.

All the best Jan

Cheryl said...

You state your case well.
It seems the right things to do.
I am sure there will be those that will display the flag on their home but perhaps now it will be minimal.

Busy Bee Suz said...

We've had many discussions regarding this in our home lately. We can see both sides of the flag's story/history....and of course, being way down south, we do see it everywhere as well. Personally, I think that if it offends someone, it shouldn't be touted in the faces of others. But then again, some people feel if it's their 'right' to fly that flag and aren't concerned with the emotions of others. *sigh* so much controversy; it's so overwhelming for me right now. Great post.

Unknown said...

Thank you for this valuable insight for a northerner. I too see both sides but I tend to agree with it not being on display on public property.

KGMom said...

Excellent! I agree that the Confederate flag has become corrupted.
And the comparison to the Nazi flag (though not the Nazi regime) is most apt.
We have recently had a mini-influx of Nepalese immigrants. In our neighborhood of some 40 houses, 5 houses have been bought by families from Nepal. And understandably they decorate the exterior of their houses with celebratory banners--that feature the Hindu cross, facing left instead of Nazi right. Predictably, perhaps, some neighbors misunderstood and wondered why the Nepalese were displaying Nazi flags. It took some explaining.
With the Confederate flag--there is no explaining.

Arkansas Patti said...

We did hit the same notes today, though your post was more thoroughly explored and presented better. Well done--great post.
I went to school both in the north and south. In the north we were taught the war was about slavery, in the south, it was deemed economic. Totally different view points of the same action.

troutbirder said...

I've read two really good editorials on this subject recently. One by David Brooks in the New York Times on Wed. & one by Carolyn on her blog. Kudos to both....

The Bug said...

Amen & amen! I'll have to see if I can get Dr. M to post his take on the situation - as a historian and a great great grandson of a confederate soldier. (Hint - it's pretty much the same as yours)

Pat said...

Eloquently stated. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree. Thank you for writing it down. Many of my favorite bloggers are from the south, and it is your presence that reminds me to the humanity and kindness everywhere.

Sharon said...

As you wrote so well, the Confederate flag needs to be consigned to history. It can be honored there and on the tombstones of the men who died fighting under that flag. Nearby my home, a SC cemetery has a tombstone for a man who died at age 105. The stone lists nine battles he was in, including Gettysburg. The Confederate flag honors him. On the other hand, are the pick-up trucks with a large Confederate flag flying from the back. They are the flags that are a dishonor to those solders who died.

Dick Klade said...

Fine post. I'm in total agreement. It may be \of some interest that the Confederacy instituted the first military draft in North America. Thus, many rebel soldiers were fighting because they had to, not because they supported or opposed a cause. Later, the union also drafted soldiers. One unique feature of the Confederacy's draft (added shortly after adoption) was that anyone who owned 20 or more slaves was exempt. The draft also applied only to white males, calling into question claims by some that numerous blacks fought for the South.

Carolina Linthead said...

Indeed, Dick. I'm pretty sure my great-great grandfather "volunteered" to avoid the draft. He didn't join until September 1862, and by volunteering he got to pick his unit, a company composed almost entirely of fellow men and kinsmen from Burke County, NC. If he had waited to risk the draft, he would have been randomly placed. My take on the subject is that the flag became a museum piece at war's end and should have stayed that way. As it is today, it is a symbol too widely adopted by white supremacists, hate groups, segregationists, and on and on and on. A few years of being a battle flag does not counterbalance 150 years of pure hate.

Vicki Lane said...

Such a good post. Caroline. A corrupted symbol is exactly what it is. It became popular with segregationists during the Civil Rights movement. These days, as a friend said, it's useful to
define a certain element -- much like the rattle on a rattlesnake.

Mary Lee said...

So glad you wrote this! I went to school in eastern NC and cringe now at some of the songs we sang each morning. Stephen Foster probably would now, too, even though he wrote them. I'm certainly no student of the Confederacy, but what I have read about what is now recognized as the "Confederate flag" leaves much confusion as to how this particular version came to be accepted. I understood that it was the battle flag of northern Virginia (Robert E. Lee's area) and that at the end of the war, Lee said it should be retired and never flown again.

Wasn't it also the case that the reason many of the wealthy southerners didn't fight was that they could pay someone to go in their place? sigh. I need to read more history. I'm with you though, about displaying this flag. No more!

KB said...

I learned a lot from this post. Because I've never spent much time in the southeast, I didn't know many of the things you mentioned - like the songs you sang in school and the teachings about the Civil War. I also didn't know the original meaning of the swastika symbol.

Thank you for a thoughtful and educational post. I agree with your conclusion whole-heartedly.

Last week was certainly a week of change.

Glenda Beall said...

This is the best post I've read on this subject. Having grown up in the deep south, I never thought of the flag as being racist, although we never flew the flag. I only saw it flying along with the state flag, etc. Sadly, I had no idea that it was so offensive to black people. Now that I've read your post, and see how the swastika was corrupted, this makes so much sense to me. The flag our ancestors honored is no more. It has forever been corrupted and should be put away in museums as part of history.
Thank you for such a thoughtful and well researched post.

NCmountainwoman said...

Thank you all for your comments.

Lowcarb - It is always best to look for the positive things in life.

Cheryl - I agree that people should have the right to display the flag on their property, but I do believe it sends a certain message about them.

Suz - Yes, driving in Florida does give sight to many Confederate Flags, especially in the panhandle.

Linda - Thanks for dropping by.

Donna - Yes, the Hindu flag does sometimes get mistaken. In the Milwaukee suburbs, an old school building had the "good luck" swastikas made into the bricks on the tower. There was so much misunderstanding that they were cemented over.

Patti - Interesting that we both took on the same topic and came to the same conclusions.

Troutbirder - THANKS I will likely never again see my name in the same sentence with David Brooks whom I admire greatly. Even when I disagree with him on some more conservative issues.

Bug - I would love to read his take on this issue. He does have such a great way with words.

Pat - Thanks

Robin - That's one of the wonderful things about blogs. You can read thoughts from people all over the world.

Sharon - thanks for dropping by. I totally agree with you.

Dick - thanks for dropping by. I have checked out your blog and like it very much. You are so right about the irony of exemption for people with a lot of slaves.

Linthead - Well said.

Vicki - I love the defining elements statement.

Mary Lee - I also sang some of the gleeful and mournful Stephen Foster songs. And yes, many plantation owners paid someone else to fulfill their conscription.

KB - Yes it was indeed a week of change and all for the better.

Glenda - I agree. Many of us went a very long time without recognizing the hurt that the flag caused.

sage said...

Good words... I've been pondering the meaning of this flag a lot lately and agree with your thoughts.