Folly ’round the flag?

The Confederate battle flag: It’s history


WHAT MAKES a symbol good or bad? An American flag pinned to the lapel of a shady politician spurs different emotions than Old Glory, folded, clutched to the breast of a Gold Star mother. The cross on the steeple looks beautiful–but not on the robe of a hooded hater. Whether the general’s insignia rate a salute or spittle depends on whether he liberated the concentration camp or ran it.

No symbol, be it ever so fine, is immune to becoming its antithesis. In fact the brightest ideals are the most subject to defilement: The holy Temple becomes a den of thieves; the young virgin becomes the target of the prowling pimp. Surely something like this is true of the Confederate battle flag, whose image, included on a mural, Muvico–the new mall theater that commissioned the work–is now removing. What some see as an emblem of ancestral valor, others take as a racist outrage. In any case, after a Washington TV station did a story on it, the mural had a shorter life than Solomon Grundy (" born on a Monday Married on Wednesday Buried on Sunday This is the end of Solomon Grundy").

Muvico doesn’t exist to host civics lessons or history debates, but to make money. It wants to see popcorn lines, not picket lines. Still, the company seemed a bit hasty in erasing a partial image of the Rebel banner. There’s a lot to say on the subject of its appropriateness, and many of the offended callers to Muvico might have been less so after it was said; and the flag’s defenders could have learned a few things, too.

As Muvico management noted, even as it was slapping on whitewash, the mural, showing both a U.S. and a Confederate flag under the billowing wings of an American eagle, aimed to reinforce the conciliatory theme of the company’s adjacent Chatterbox bar, whose imaginative story line has Gens. Lee and Grant tossing down a few together in a respite from their bloody business in these parts. The larger idea, in this newspaper’s paraphrase of the theater’s GM, "was to depict the separation of the Union and the Confederacy, and then the reuniting of the two sides."

The two juxtaposed banners of course echo the reality of our area’s four major Civil War battles and many skirmishes. One is tempted to ask if the offended mall-goers ever visit local museums devoted to the Late Unpleasantness and, if so, do they urge the museum shops to remove facsimiles of the Confederate battle flag, a variation of which heralded the Army of Northern Virginia from 1861 onward? What about other CSA symbols? Do Civil War re-enactments, festooned with Confederate banners of many kinds, afflict their sensibilities? How much history is too much to stand?


Yet the flag’s defenders should ponder its scabrous misuses. It may be true to say, for example, that slavery existed longer under the U.S. flag than under any standard sewn in Dixie in the 1860s, but this is antiseptic analysis, oblivious to the ancestral experiences of many Virginians.

In fact, had the armies that followed the Confederate battle flag prevailed, slavery might have continued on this continent for years. The yahoos who thought it fine to burn out or murder "uppity" blacks in the postwar South often waved that very flag at their rallies. During the civil rights era, some Southern legislatures redesigned state flags, incorporating the battle flag as a symbol of resistance to integration. All this is history, too, and the sensitivities of some who know it–some even recollect parts of it–are not feigned and are not negligible.

People of good will can learn from each other, but first there must be conversation. The Civil War sesquicentennial, fast approaching, is a timely invitation to talk and to listen, to debate and meet our fellow Americans halfway. (For example: Might the Confederate Bonny Blue flag, with a less incendiary past than the battle flag, be acceptable to all sides in many cases?) During the war’s anniversary, these pages will provide a forum for discussing the war, its causes, and its legacies. We look forward to hearing your views.

Meanwhile, we propose something admittedly odd–a truce before that engagement of ideas formally begins. That will be easier if everyone can rally ’round the flag we’ll prosaically call benefit-of-the-doubt:

Copyright 2010, The Free Lance-Star Publishing Co.

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