Month: October 2015

How the Confederate Flag Hides the Real Southern Pride We Never Hear About

On October 12, 2015, some 15 suspects were charged with “terroristic, gang-related activitiesafter they participated in a convoy of pick-up trucks and other vehicles flying the Confederate Battle Flag, and harassed an innocent family in a park, making threatening and racist slurs, and threatening the family’s children. This event (which occurred on July 25, 2015) took place as part of a large-scale, racial backlash against an effort to remove the Confederate Battle Flag from state government properties in South Carolina and elsewhere. The racial backlash ironically joined with other voices of the south to argue that the Confederate Battle Flag is a legitimate symbol of “southern heritage” (and therefore of the South itself) and is not necessarily or predominantly a symbol of the South’s racist past (or present).

In the backlash of the “flag issue” of 2015, what public protests took place in defiance of the “flaggers” of Georgia and other states using the flag as a deliberate statement of racism? There were no such. Those seeking to protect the “honor” of the flag found offense in those decrying the flag’s racist past, but did nothing to jettison its continuing importance as a racist symbol. If those wishing both to protect the Confederate Battle Flag and to deny its racist connections only attack those taking the flag down, but not those adding to its racist legacy, they merely feed the fires of both racial antagonism and the flag issue as a separate question.

Taking the opposite view were commentators such as native Texan Mac McCann, a student and writer for the Chicago Tribune, the Huffington Post, and various Texan publications. McCann noted specifically that confusing the Confederate Battle Flag with anything other than the purpose for which it was designed, a rally of pro-slavery secessionists against their own Southern Unionist and anti-slavery brethren, in defense of the deliberately slavery-preserving institution of the Confederacy, is a betrayal of the real legacy of Southern pride and honor. This argument has far better support from the historical record.

While pride in the land of one’s birth is a normal feeling among most people, the confusion of pride in the South with the legacy of the Confederate Battle Flag ignores far too many proud moments of the South’s history, and focuses in fact on the more ugly ramifications of “Southern heritage,” in denoting a land whose people fought for the defense of the preservation of slavery, and then struggled violently after their military defeat to subjugate the race they had fought to maintain as their servants. In fact, it is difficult to find, among those wishing to identify the Confederate Battle Flag as a symbol of the South, those who identify with or lionize the Southern Unionists who opposed secession, or who after secession (especially in East Tennessee, West Virginia, and parts of Alabama) struggled to retain connections with the North. Southerners would, of course, be cautioned not to fly the Battle Flag too close to the ghosts of Southern Unionists who died fighting Confederate troops marching under that flag. Southerners fighting for freedom in the Civil War saw the Battle Flag for what it was – a symbol of treason, secession, and slavery.

In fact, those identifying the Battle Flag as a symbol of the south in general very deliberately avoid associating with non-racist or anti-racist symbols of the South. Southerners fighting the good fight for freedom, against the institution of slavery and against the secession designed to preserve it, seem to disappear into the void as the Battle Flag flies. This decries the true honor and legacy of the South, a land that contributed over two hundred thousand of its young men (white and black) to the Union Army to fight against the slave-holding Confederacy. In fact, while records from the South make it difficult to ascertain precise numbers, the number of white Southerners who fought for the Union may number as much as a third (though probably somewhat less) of the number who fought for the Confederacy. In addition to the free whites of the South, freed and runaway slaves (as well as some of the very small, free black population of the South) also joined the fight for the Union and for freedom. But those who today fly the Confederate Battle Flag as a symbol of their “southern pride” spit on both the whites and the blacks of the South who fought to defeat the mission of those flying that flag – the preservation of slavery and of a racist society.

The flag problem can be seen in the context of two separate questions: what symbol(s) do “southern pride” proponents use, and what symbols don’t they use? It is easy for racists to identify with the Confederate Battle Flag, and with images of John Calhoun, Jefferson Davis, and Bobby Lee. But those, white or black, who fought and died to make the South a better place by freeing it of the moral stain of slavery rarely end up being symbols of “southern pride.” Those faces are not, to southern racists, any symbol they choose to be proud of. Nor are the faces of the Little Rock Nine, or Ruby Nell Bridges, or MLK, or leaders of the Southern Poverty Law Center, or other pioneers of the civil rights movement. Yet these southern freedom fighters made both the South and the US as a whole a better, and freer place. That those seeking to keep the Confederate Battle Flag flying do not generally identify with such powerful images of southern pride and heritage, tells anyone caring to listen, loudly and clearly, just what “southern pride and heritage” really means – the belief that a racially ordered society is normal, acceptable, even laudable, and worthy of its defense and preservation.

Ultimately, the “flaggers” of Georgia and elsewhere demonstrate, in concert with those quietly disapproving of the efforts to remove the flag from state offices, that their pride is not at all in the South, but in their racist identity and worldview. They refuse to accept legitimate symbols of pride that represent freedom, and instead embrace a warped and limited pride in one faction of the South, seeking to preserve a dying legacy of racial hatred. Their anger at those identifying the obvious connection between the Confederate Battle Flag and racism is not due to any misunderstanding or simplification of southern history by those wanting to take down the flag (a sin which the flag’s “defenders” themselves are at fault for committing), but due only to their guilt at being caught out in the immoral act of promoting racism and oppression in a supposedly democratic land.

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The City on a Hill: A Critical Reading of Winthrop’s Sermon on Christian Charity

In 1630, John Winthrop (a later governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony) wrote a sermon on Christian charity, in which he referenced Matthew 5:14, the Sermon on the Mount, and described the new America to come as a city upon a Hill.”  The city on a hill is visible to all; and either lights the darker places in the valley below with the light from its windows, or keeps them in the dark through its inaction or miserliness. Winthrop helped to develop an idea of America as a new, holy community with a mission, focusing the world’s attention upon it. Winthrop concentrated on charity, specifically, in order to push the community members into a greater, more cohesive collective and to give the community the responsibility to act charitably. Charity was not to be a personal responsibility alone; but was now also the communal responsibility of what would become the new American nation – the responsibility of its society and its government.

In the modern political dialogue between Left and Right, however, we often lose sight of the responsibility that falls upon the city on the hill. Two troubling aspects of this problem are the notion of “American Exceptionalism,” and the notion that the US is (and is supposed to be) a “Christian nation.” Both arguments are superficially derived from Winthrop’s sermon (as well, of course, as other sources), but they also lose completely the point of Winthrop’s sermon. On the one hand, liberals downplay American Exceptionalism, understanding that our nation has failed at many points of its history to live up to its most basic promises, has supported slavery and perpetrated genocide, and has denied basic “guaranteed” rights to its citizens. Liberals also downplay or deny the Christian nation argument, citing especially the Founding Fathers. Liberals also wish to distance modern American notions of rights and legality from Biblical directives and outdated concepts of social structure. Conservatives, on the other hand, superficially embrace both American Exceptionalism and the Christian nation argument, but they ignore completely the essential requirements, as laid out by Winthrop’s sermon, of fulfilling their own apparent visions of America.

American Exceptionalism is the notion that the US stands apart from the rest of the world’s nations. Proponents of Exceptionalism love to cite the Revolution, the Constitution, and other patriotic moments of our history as proof that the US was first, and remains the best, at fulfilling a special role to make the world a better place. Proponents ignore some of the basic failures of the US (slavery, the Indian wars, the Southern “Redemption” and its century of post-slavery racial violence, the Vietnam War, etc.), and they also ignore basic successes of foreign states in establishing and maintaining strong democracies (Canada, Scandinavia, western Europe, Japan, etc.). But more disturbingly, they ignore the question of why America is supposed to be “exceptional,” and what the ramifications and responsibilities of exceptionalism are.

It is easy to be not just patriotic, but nationalistic. Nationalists pop up in every nation on Earth, each convinced fiercely of the mission that bears upon their nation, to make the world a better place by making it more like their own nation. Russians, Germans, Frenchmen, Britons, Chinese, Japanese, Iranians, Saudis, etc., each have a concept of nation that makes their nation “exceptional.” The ancient Romans did, as did the Spartans, Athenians, and ancient Persians, etc. That America is “exceptional” is ironically something that makes us like every other nation, and every other national identity, throughout history – like all individuals sharing the fact that we are all, indeed, individuals.

If, however, we are to interpret “exceptionalism” to mean being better, being destined for something greater, than it is a title that must be earned, and not just once but perpetually. If you got an A+ in the third grade, but have never again shined academically, you are not an “exceptional student.” If just once, in high school, you scored that awesome touchdown with which you continue to bore your friends, but never again accomplished any great athletic feats, you are not an “exceptional athlete.” A truly exceptional nation must continue to fight itself, fight its own demons and failures, and confront them while striving towards perfection; not merely content itself to be “good enough” or better than that one bad place in today’s news. Otherwise, it becomes merely a nation, like all others, that had its moment of glory but is now just another place to live.

So, if America is truly “exceptional,” what makes us so? Certainly not our record of failures, nor our neighbors’ record of successes, nor the fact that, like all nations, we are unique. Neither our declining productive capacity, nor our stagnating education system, our rotting infrastructure, nor our refusal to extend basic health-care without extensive personal costs, argue for some right to a mission; nor do our increasing militarization of our police and their own increasing aggressiveness in policing their communities.

Winthrop’s sermon on charity demonstrates exactly how the “exceptional” new community must be defined. He demonstrates that the Christian community (which conservatives consider the US to be) is Christian not because of the faith of its majority, but because of the charity of its work. Winthrop specifically argues the notion of social contract between the various members and classes of the community. The rich, who Winthrop argues have not their own talents to thank for their fortunes but the designs of God, are responsible for using their wealth, all of it, to care for the poor – to feed, house, clothe, and provide for them. Similarly, the poor have not their own faults to blame for their status, but the designs of God. So long as the rich live up to a promise of community and employ all possible tools and wealth to look after the poor, the poor are responsible for maintaining basic order and civility – not to revolt, or to steal, or otherwise commit violence. Winthrop is clear on the function of wealth in the City on a Hill: the expenditure of all wealth toward the alleviation of “every want or distress.” If that mission is not fulfilled, the poor are no longer “under contract” (so to speak) to remain humbly in servitude and quiescence.

So, when conservative pundits and politicians blame the poor for their “laziness”; or refuse to allocate funding for welfare, food support, or health care; or refuse to tax the wealthy (specifically and especially) to provide for these needs, when they argue against funding for education, when they call for “simple” or “fair” taxes, when they call for cuts on wealth taxes and estate taxes and on corporate taxes for the larger corporations, when they laud the wealthy and loathe the needy, they break the contract. In doing so, they earn, as Winthrop stated openly, the curses of the world, and of their own putative God Himself, and they diminish that special light by which the City on a Hill lights the darker places in the valley below.

On the other hand, when liberals argue for these services, argue for taxes on wealth, argue for a greater and deeper community of care and mutual provision, they are, indeed, fulfilling Winthrop’s mission, and building the City on a Hill. It is those who draw away from the worst nationalistic pride of “exceptionalism,” those Christians (like our Founding Fathers) who separate their worship from their politics, who earn the title of exceptionalism for America, and who demonstrate what Winthrop argued a holy Christian community and nation to be. Those of us who keep hammering away at our nation’s faults build our City; those who wave the flag while denying national flaws tear it down. Those of us who seek to level the playing field, who urge that corporations be held accountable and financially responsible for their actions (and for funding public support structures), fulfill Winthrop’s mission, and build the City. Those merely “proud of their country,” but hateful of their neighbors, distrustful of the poor and of people who look or act differently, those supporting the concentration of wealth and opposing taxes and social supports, have earned no right, for themselves or their nation, to be called either “exceptional,” or “Christian,” two terms they pretend to hold most dearly. Winthrop shows us that ultimately, the City on a Hill is an obligation, both political and moral, to advocate for those values that, in today’s dialogue, fall on the liberal side (or even the more openly leftist side) of the political spectrum.