The Baggage of Flaggage
I’ve been wanting to publish this post for many months. It is essentially a follow up to this earlier post about the continued flying of the Confederate flag I wrote about a year ago, and expands upon this earlier post about American flagolatry.
But I decided to save it for reflection on Flag Day. As it happens, I am in the midst of a series of posts about American culture, history and politics and this one fits right in with the series. I began this particular run of posts around May 1, and it will likely spool out through the election in November.
The present post grew out of the eye-opening realization, spawned from my recent research, that there’s a lot of smug, self-satisfied hypocrisy involved in projecting all our ire onto the Stars and Bars, which is merely one regional, temporary manifestation of American racism (and that for just one news cycle — heard any complaints about the Stars and Bars lately?). It’s occurred to me that by focusing solely on the evils of the slave holding states of the Confederacy, America avoids a painful and necessary confrontation with those committed under the banner of the Stars and Stripes. Because the truth is that behind the lofty language, and the annual pats on the back we give ourselves, the American flag has as many sins to atone for as the Confederate one.
Over time, the Stars and Bars has become a sort of lightning rod that draws attention away from America’s culpability in the very same crimes against humanity and allows us to live with ourselves in relative complacency. The narrative has been written a certain way, one that is given a convenient, digestible gestalt by the false “us and them” conformation of the Civil War. According to this mental portrait, “the North” is and was a haven of enlightened love and racial tolerance, and “the South” is and was some rogue culture with a foreign set of values
And yet the truth is that in America until 1865, slavery existed under various versions of THIS flag and its predecessors:
Southern States seceded because they feared future interference with an activity they had been engaged in for 150 years not as “Confederates” but as AMERICANS. Further, when Abraham Lincoln took office in 1860, he did so with no mandate or declared intention of ending slavery in those Southern states. He was an outspoken critic of slavery, yes, and hoped to end the EXTENSION of slavery to new American territories. But only the secession crisis and the Civil War made political conditions possible in America for the passage of the 13th Amendment. (Even the Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves in the rebel territories, a theoretical gesture at best. The Union still permitted slavery in the border states of Maryland, Missouri, Kentucky, and Delaware until 1865).
Further, as most people know, the North engaged in slavery as well, though on a smaller scale because it didn’t have the same plantation economy. I have always had a special awareness of this because my home town, for a variety of reasons, had the highest capita concentration of slaves in the North until the Revolution, and nearby Newport was the slave trading center of the entire country. Then, as a result of the ferment that came out of the separation from Britain and the foundation of a new nation under the constitution, the northern states did make slavery illegal, but there was a certain amount of foot dragging. New York abolished it in 1827, but allowed “part-time” slavery until 1841. New Jersey, the southernmost northern state, passed an act for gradual abolition in 1804, the practical result of which was final abolition in 1846. (In 1830, 2/3 of the slaves that remained in the north were in New Jersey). Slavery was finally abolished in Pennsylvania via its gradual manumission law in 1847. Further, there was all the federal law that sanctioned and enabled slavery (e.g. the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850; the Dred Scott decision of 1857). And the continued financial participation of northern business interests in the slave economy. An excellent resource on the North’s involvement in slavery can be found at www.slavenorth.com. But the truth is that until the end of the Civil War, America (as opposed to a confederation of breakaway states) was a country with slavery. The American flag is the Other Slavery Flag.
And then came the failures of Reconstruction and the institution of Jim Crow lasting another century. Here, too, another convenient opportunity for finger pointing by the North. And yet, what but the cold indifference of a racist NORTHERN majority could have allowed that to happen? Consider the de-Nazification program that America oversaw in post-war Germany in the 1940s and 50s, and the similar effort in Japan. It is illegal to fly a swastika in Germany to this day. The situation in the defeated South was quite different, thanks to the hands-off policy of the U.S.: they were allowed to continue to fly an enemy flag, erect statues to leaders who killed American troops, and taught to espouse the same ideology that gave rise to the conflict in the first place.
Why? The answer should be obvious. The North was full of racists, too. Indeed, it might be said that, just like the South, it consisted of a MAJORITY of racists. The difference between the regions being merely one of degree, not of kind. In all the former slaveholding states, North as well as South, blacks were second class citizens, menials, mocked in entertainment, and officially barred from advancement by a thousand hurdles. If you have studied the Ku Klux Klan at all, then you know that its greatest extent occurred not at its founding (1865-1871) when it was a local Southern movement formed in reaction to Radical Reconstruction, but during the so-called Second Klan (1915-1944), formed in the wake of the movie The Birth of a Nation. At its peak in the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan had 4 million members, and it flourished in the north as well as the south. The state with the highest Ku Klux Klan membership per capita was Indiana. Northern cities like Detroit (40,000 members) were hotbeds of Klan activity. The largest Klan gathering in New England was held in Worcester in 1924, when 15,000 Klansmen, new inductees and supporters convened at the Agricultural Fairgrounds. (A riot broke out when protesters also showed up, and local membership immediately fell off after that).
Here’s a photo of a Klan parade in Binghamton, NY. H’m…they seem to be marching with a flag, and it’s not a Confederate one:
And today we live in a third era, in the wake of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, where America for the most part is no longer officially racist in terms of laws on the books. But a stupifying denial of responsibility remains, along with an attitude that “it’s all behind us”. But remnants of racist culture persist to bedevil us, sometimes (as in the case of law enforcement) with lethal results.
The enormity of American slavery and the culture’s subsequent treatment of blacks is a blight on the scale of the Holocaust: millions kidnapped, killed, tortured, raped, imprisoned, and condemned to hard labor. Removal and extermination were not the agenda in this case; that was covered by our Native American policy, which we haven’t even touched on here. One of the first people to openly point out these twin blots on the American record was none other than Adolf Hitler, in a 1939 speech before the Reichstag, in which he ridiculed Roosevelt’s hypocrisy in criticizing him. A case can be made that Hitler’s policies found precedent in America’s (particularly, his dream of opening up “Lebensraum” in the east by simply enslaving or getting rid of the populations he found there).
And yet — well, America rid the world of Hitler, did we not? In fact, that is the primary thing I contemplate with pride when I look at the American flag. And when did the Second Klan start to wither on the vine? 1944. I think some soul searching was inevitable in the wake of what we learned was happening in Germany. It was after the war that some progress started to happen on Civil Rights. But you will admit that any progress has been like pulling teeth. We grudgingly dole out restitution and equity to the children of the people we enslaved with eye droppers and then congratulate ourselves for what beneficent souls we are.
I was going to spout a bit more on American failures to live up to its own articulated ideals (our genocidal Indian policy, and several wars of conquest and domination), but really that’s an entire book, and Howard Zinn already wrote that — and it’s a book I don’t like. Zinn’s attack is too ad hominem. He acts like America is the only nation with black marks against it (when nearly every nation of the world has similar ones), and further that America ONLY works evil in the world, which is something I will never sign off on. At times this nation has fought against tyrants and of those occasions we can and should be proud, and that’s what I for one think of at the moments when we’re supposed to be honoring it.
Some people are of a different mind. “My country, right or wrong” is what my father used to spout, but frankly that notion violates my every conception of what it means to be an American. My idea of the America worth honoring (and the English constitutional culture it grew out of) has been a kind of an ever-evolving, international midwife of human freedom. It starts with the Magna Carta, which limited the power of the monarchy; and then the American Revolution which separated us from that monarchy and the aristocracy that undergirded it; and then the Jacksonian Revolution which expanded political power from the landed gentry to all white men; and then women’s suffrage; and then finally the enforcement of voting rights for blacks with 1965 federal legislation. And so it’s about building a society where people are not just free from oppression, but everyone has a say in their own destiny. And the encouragement of similar freedom and power-sharing in the nations around the world.
What it is NOT supposed to be is some tribe that can do (as all nations everywhere have always done) whatever the hell it likes, run roughshod over other peoples and other nations, and demand conformity and unformity among its citizens. If that’s what it is, I see no point. And increasingly, I confess I see no point. In 2016, there is something kind of barbaric about the concept of “nations”. Nations and nationalism are 19th century thinking, and it scarcely seems advanced beyond the medieval. The current age has created a situation where we’re all constantly crossing borders: making friends, doing business, trading, simply exchanging ideas. In America, we watch the BBC, and when the Paris bombings happened we watched the live coverage on French television. The world is increasingly like this. We reach a point where we have much more in common with our peers in other countries than with our political and social antagonists at home. What matters are ideals and values and principles. Yes, there are still brutes out there like Putin….all the more reason to make a world where people like Putin don’t matter any more. Pussy Riot, not Putin, are the international Russian heroes .
But patriotism is about love of country. I think I’ve established in my writing a thousand fold how much I love American culture, or aspects of it. Theoretically, it is supposed to be the nature of love that it be unconditional. There are certain people in your life whom you love whether they are right or wrong, your spouse, your family, your closest friends. If that’s not true, can you be said to truly love them? That’s a topic for debate, at least. But when it comes to GROUPS of people, I think it is different and actually problematic. Groups of people are actually abstractions, and in almost every case I can think of, putting artificial groups (tribes) before individuals is a negative, whether it’s the Blue Line, or “the Corps”, or the team, or the school, or one’s own ethnic group, or a country. The world is too small for these exclusive tribes, and those who cling to them are inclined to become petty and cruel. See the doofus in the picture at the top of this blogpost. Apparently he loves the flag to the point of sexual perversity. That he loves any human being beyond himself, of that I see no evidence. The welfare of people is what matters, not which armed camp you live in.
The question I ask, rhetorically: is it time to retire this flag, alongside the Stars and Bars, and for that matter, all the other ones? And work on the next project for humanity (expanding freedom for all people) with a clean slate, without this symbol of a checkered past hanging around our necks? I ask it, with a question mark.