Thursday, July 2, 2015

Worse than Hitler


Across the South, Confederate battle flags are coming down. Wal-Mart has pulled them from its store shelves. Online gaming companies have disabled games that feature the flag prominently. Aghast at the sudden repudiation of their "heritage," Confederacy buffs object that Nazi symbols are not receiving the same treatment, even though they clearly represent the Holocaust, while the Confederate battle flag is about honor, not racism.

Try telling that to the families of the nine people who died in Charleston, the members of the black churches that are, again, being burned across the South, or any African-American who has a lynching in his or her family tree.

In fact, as has been copiously documented in the last week, the Confederate battle flag rose to prominence precisely because it was taken to symbolize white Southern resistance first to the enforced empowerment of former slaves during Reconstruction and, later, to the battle against granting their descendants civil and voting rights. Here's an excellent essay debunking many of the heritage claims being made by Sons of Confederate Veterans.

It struck me recently that far from being a symbol of honor or heritage, the Confederate battle flag has been, since the end of the Civil War, a symbol of Southern denial that the war had anything to do with slavery, that slavery was a genuine evil, that the South bore any responsibility for the millions of African descent enslaved, humiliated, tortured, raped, mutilated, and murdered, that there ought to be any contrition at all. In fact, quite perversely, the flag has come to represent Southern pride in this heritage of genocide--though almost always (white supremacists are the exception) with the proviso that slavery was, of course, wrong. Coming into existence after the Civil War began, the flag from its very beginnings was a symbol of rebellion against the inevitable end of the peculiar institution, and its post-war use furthered that rebellion in murderous, treasonous ways. This piece of cloth encompassed three hundred years of slavery in America, and was carried into battle by those seeking to preserve and expand it against the forces that sought to abolish it.

And this is why it's worse than Hitler.

The Nazi flag flew over Germany for ten years. At the end of World War II, it came down for good. Germany renounced Nazism, the German constitution banned use of the swastika, and the nation as a whole began a massive project of restitution to the Jewish people Hitler's regime had sought to eradicate. There are no Germans insisting that the swastika represents anything other than fascism, no German veterans or children of veterans claiming it as their heritage, and the only Germans using swastikas are avowed racists who know exactly what the symbol means.

The cold hard truth--the truth so many who love this flag are denying--is that the Civil War was about slavery, an abominable practice so essential to the identity of Southern states that they sacrificed hundreds of thousands of young lives to keep it from being abolished. The "Lost Cause" they were fighting for was slavery. To be proud of this heritage, to act as if the ancestors who lost the war somehow won a moral victory, and to wrap oneself in a flag that symbolizes fighting for slavery, is to be deluded.

Many American institutions have, in recent years, sought to make amends for their role in historical atrocities. Often their efforts are accompanied by acts of restitution, sometimes by the payment of reparations. The states of the South have been remarkable for their absence from the atonement table. In fact, in the hundred and fifty years since the end of slavery (and beginning of the Jim Crow era, a bonus century of oppression and terror), the only national policy approaching reparations that has made it through state and federal legislatures is affirmative action--a program that has been challenged repeatedly, and may well be ruled unconstitutional by the next term of the Supreme Court.

The collective gall required by the descendants of Confederate soldiers to deny culpability in four hundred years of oppression and insist, instead, that the Civil War was a matter of honor and, further, that the people who so long lived under the yoke of white oppression ought have no say at all in the significance of the symbol most associated with that oppression is mind boggling.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more furious I get. So I'd best just wrap this up, post it, and turn to writing about something that doesn't make my blood boil.

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