[Paleopsych] NYTBR: 'The Confederate Battle Flag': Clashing Symbols

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Sunday Book Review > 'The Confederate Battle Flag': Clashing Symbols

[I have a newspaper photo of some dissedents in Moscow in the early 1990s, 
with a Confederate Flag waving in the background. It is a symbol of 
rebellion the world over.]


America's Most Embattled Emblem.
By John M. Coski.
Illustrated. 401 pp. The Belknap Press/ Harvard University Press. $29.95.

    T HROUGHOUT its history of controversy, one thing the Confederate
    battle flag has consistently stood for is the tendency of human beings
    to muddle their best instincts and their worst. As the banner of
    Southern nationalism, the star-spangled cross is an emblem of heroic
    self-determination, of the Confederacy's rebellion against federal
    ''oppression.'' But the ideal that urged the secessionists on to their
    blood-drenched sacrifice was the freedom to subject a race of people
    to enslavement.

    Nearly a century and a half after the Civil War ended, the battle flag
    remains a standard in the eternal struggle between tradition and
    change, a conflict that is looking increasingly like a culture war.
    The most protracted ''flag flaps'' have been sparked by the campaigns
    of African-Americans, along with sympathetic whites, to compel
    Southern states to purge from their official insignia an icon widely
    seen as the badge of white supremacy. The subject is so inflammatory
    that Howard Dean's overture to voters with Confederate flags on their
    pickup trucks during his presidential campaign set off a cross-fire of
    recrimination and bad faith. John M. Coski's history, ''The
    Confederate Battle Flag,'' brings some needed rationality to a debate
    driven by the raw emotion of soul injury.

    But reason, it turns out, is unequal to ''the duality of the Southern
    thing'' -- as the dialectics of Southern identity is called by
    Drive-By Truckers, contemporary rock's interpreters of Dixie. It takes
    more magic than is attempted by this academic study to conjure a
    region that balances so many polar extremes -- generous hospitality
    and casual violence, rebellious individualism and docile conformity,
    scrappy sectionalism and hyperpatriotism, military discipline and
    warrior impulsivity, redneck pride and genteel modesty -- all under a
    flag claimed equally by the Ku Klux Klan and the liberators of
    Soviet-bloc Europe.

    The battle flag exemplified this duality from the beginning. It was
    embraced as a belligerent alternative to the original official flag of
    the Confederacy, the Stars and Bars, which blood-lusty rebels
    condemned as a ''servile imitation'' of the North's Stars and Stripes.
    Yet its signature cross was positioned diagonally in order not to
    alienate the South's Jewish citizens through overt Christian
    symbolism. In the post-bellum decades of segregation, when black
    voices were excluded from civic discourse, the two competing camps of
    flag protocol were the ''correct use'' purists, dedicated to the
    sacred honor of the Confederate dead, and the admen, frat boys and
    politicians who believed the image belonged to the popular culture. It
    was not until 1948 that the flag resurfaced in connection with a
    white-supremacist political movement, the Dixiecrats, those Southern
    Democrats who bolted their party in protest against its civil rights

    As useful as it is to have the record set straight on, say, the fact
    that the Klan did not take up the Confederate colors until the 1940's,
    too much of this book is a catalog of flag moments, with an elusive
    organizing principle and scant sociopolitical context. When Coski, the
    historian at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va., does
    sally forth from the thicket of Southern-crossed Klan rallies,
    segregation fests, football games, Old South balls, stock car races
    and military operations (he informs us that some marines signaled the
    American victory on Okinawa during World War II by raising the
    Confederate flag), the analysis is refreshingly direct and
    nonpolemical, especially on the merits of the various controversies.
    Coski points out that the ''Heritage, Not Hate'' flag advocates are
    engaged in a futile exercise when they try ''to divorce the defense of
    Confederate symbols and the honor of Confederate soldiers from the
    cause for which the soldiers fought.'' But he likewise tweaks the
    opponents for their excesses of historical revisionism: ''Elected
    officials, community leaders and intellectuals must cease encouraging
    the untenable belief that there is an inherent American right not to
    be offended.''

    Coski's unsentimental approach is admirable, but by slighting the
    emotional essence of the ''Southern thing'' he sidesteps the basic,
    tragic question: Why are so many white people so irrationally invested
    in their regional mythology? However inept the flag's defenders are at
    articulating it, the reason does in fact transcend race. The South's
    ferocious sectional pride is the flip side of an inferiority complex,
    a chip-on-the-shoulder legacy of its savage defeat by a civilization
    it rejected long before the Civil War. Consider the South's antebellum
    obsession with the ''lost cause'' of Scotland's struggle for
    independence against cold, mercantile England. In his fascinating
    study of vanquished nations, ''The Culture of Defeat,'' Wolfgang
    Schivelbusch describes how this romance of the underdog reflected the
    agrarian Southern cavaliers' doomed sense of obsolescence when
    confronted with the inexorable moneymaking machines of the North. (The
    Confederacy's Southern cross was actually the cross of St. Andrew,
    Scotland's patron saint.) The North's scorched-earth war strategy was
    indeed designed to annihilate not just the South's army but its entire
    civilization. As the Union general Philip Henry Sheridan declared,
    ''The people must be left nothing but their eyes to weep with over the

    The South has long expressed its grief through unconstructive displays
    of resentment. According to Drive-By Truckers: ''We ain't never gonna
    change. / We ain't doin' nothin' wrong.'' In 2001 white Mississippians
    voted overwhelmingly to preserve the Southern cross on their state
    flag (just as, in a grosser act of nobody-can-tell-us-what-to-do
    defiance nearly 50 years earlier, local jurors acquitted the
    coldblooded murderers of the black teenager Emmett Till).

    The perversely empowering allure of victimhood calls out even to the
    South's most critical daughters. Some years ago, I was looking into a
    potential elementary school for my younger child. It was a highly
    recommended prospect, located on the politically correct Upper West
    Side of Manhattan and named after one of General Sheridan's
    colleagues. Halfway through the school's guided tour, I decided ''no
    way,'' explaining to a fellow Southern mom who was there, ''Do you
    really think you could tell the folks back home that you're sending
    your child to the William Tecumseh Sherman School?''

    Such are the dwindling stakes of the continuing North-South conflict,
    a clash of values nowadays defined in terms of blue states and red
    states. As with most of the issues in the culture wars, the battle
    over the Confederate flag may bring moral satisfaction to the victors,
    but little in the way of improvement to their daily lives. Fighting
    over the spoils of a tattered cloth is another example of ordinary
    people taking passionate political stands that distract them from the
    likelier source of their distress, the widening division not between
    whites and blacks but between have-mores and have-lesses.

    Diane McWhorter is the author of ''Carry Me Home. Birmingham, Alabama:
    The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution,'' and a young
    adult history of the civil rights movement, ''A Dream of Freedom.''

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