the confederate flag

I am gonna talk about Dean, but more generally about the confederate flag itself. First, (one of) the quotes itself:

I intend to talk about race during this election in the South. The Republicans have been talking about it since 1968 in order to divide us, and I’m going to bring us together. Because you know what? White folks in the South who drive pickup trucks with Confederate flag decals on the back ought to be voting with us because their kids don’t have health insurance either, and their kids need better schools too.

I don’t think Dean is a racist. He wanted to express his desire to be inclusive of the “good ol’ boy” south. He wants to represent the Democratic party in helping the underprivileged in the South regardless of ethnicity. Whatever. However, he chose a very poor symbol to use descriptively. The confederate flag is a racist symbol. (Don’t worry, more on this further down.)

Now, if you take what he said at face value, it’s not really an intrinsically offensive statement. Delivering health insurance and good schools to people that need it is a good thing, even if they are racists. At face value, he is saying that he thinks underprivileged southerners that fly the confederate flag should vote Democrat (and for him) because it’s in their best interest, and this is probably true. The problem is that invariably this is interpreted as a tacit approval of flying the confederate flag and by extension, racism. I don’t really think that’s what he meant. But it is a valid interpretation of what he said, and that is why it was so bone-headed.

Thus far, in my opinion, Dean is proving his intelligence by defending his assertion in a rather clever fashion, but he’s still not really owning up to the idiocy of what he said. And why shouldn’t he? Here’s a mental exercise: what percentage of southerners fly the confederate flag? Now, what percentage of those are genuinely racist? Lastly, what percentage of those would vote Democrat anyway? My guess: not many. So my question is: why doesn’t Dean just cut the BS and talk about why the confederate flag is a hateful, racist symbol and explain that he didn’t mean to imply that he would ever condone its display? The obvious answer is that he doesn’t want to alienate the voters that may disagree. But in my opinion, keeping our mental exercise from before in mind, the percentage of the minority vote he could pick up by elaborating (and strongly condemning) is far greater than the white, racist voters he might alienate. Further, who is impressed with shucking-and-jiving? No one likes to see a politician wobbling on an issue so as to not offend either opposite side. I could be wrong, though.

So, why is the confederate flag a racist symbol? Easy: because it was the flag flown by the confederacy in a civil war between the north and the south over the use of African slaves. Yes, there were also numerous other reasons, both social and economic. But let’s not fool ourselves. Slavery was a huge cause for the war. See for a good collection of myths commonly espoused by confederate apologists and their respective refutations.

Usually when you bring this up, the defense of flying the confederate flag is that the war wasn’t really about slavery, and the confederate flag symbolizes southern heritage and history. So, ludicrous as that may be, let’s pretend that’s a given. If the confederate flag merely symbolizes southern heritage and history from a war that wasn’t about slavery, then it must have been co-opted somewhere along the line. Lots of people think the flag has racist connotations. This raises a question: who changed the meaning? Who co-opted the flag to represent racism? The answer: racist, white supremacist organizations using it as a symbol. Or, you know, maybe it was a passive creation of minorities with nothing better to do than to demonize a flag. You be the judge.

But, even given that obvious flaw, some people are adamant that the confederate flag isn’t meant to represent slavery or racism, but rather is just a symbol for the solidarity of southern culture and heritage. Symbols of culture and heritage are great. Solidarity is great. But the fact remains that although you don’t think the symbol has connotations of racism or slavery, millions of other people disagree fervently. The point of choosing a symbol is to communicate ideas, so it doesn’t matter what you think it means. What matters is what other people think it means. I’ve had long, laborious arguments about this with people that fail to recognize the subjective nature of a symbol, or a word (or a political cartoon). The meaning to you may not be the same as the meaning to others – in this case, millions of others. So you have two choices: a) Pick a different symbol. or b) You can accept that people are going to rely on their interpretation and assume you are a bigot. You can also accept that this symbol should not be incorporated into the flag representing a state or country, because it does not represent the views of the people.

I am a proud southerner. Southern pride is a good thing. Wrapping it in a flag with a history of racism, violent rebellion, and oppression is not.

The end.