During a Veteran’s Day assembly, local high school students carried several historical American flags, including the Confederate battle flag. Outrage ensued, followed quickly by apologizing by school staff.
As I noted at the start of the Confederate Identity Project, the appearance of the flag locally troubled me. It was as if the old, bad ways had infiltrated the pristine Pacific Northwest, and Confederate politics were on the rise across the country. After a few months of research, however, I am now also worried about liberal reactions against the flag and Confederate thinking, not just their popularity with conservatives.
There is a force in our social lives that operates like the third law of Newtonian physics. When some one says “Black lives matter,” almost instantly some one says, “All lives matter,” or “Blue lives matter,” or even “White lives matter.”
I have learned this reactionary force was part of the Civil War. The more northern abolitionists decried slavery as evil, the more southern planters doubled down on their defiance. Over forty years of geographic separation, this North vs. South dynamic intensified as more and more emotional energy was added to the system. It ended with more American deaths than both world wars combined.
I started this project just before the violence in Charlottesville, and I was curious to see what would happen after those tragic events. Would they tamp down Confederate identity? Would it no longer be OK to fly the stars and bars and claim they represent your heritage, even if you aren’t from the south?
To my surprise, the result doesn’t appear less support from the Confederates, it’s more denunciation from progressives. The net is simply more energy in the system. President Trump and his supporters have doubled down by defending Confederate statues, while Democrats and progressives have upped the ante by labeling the flag and those who defend it as “alt-right” white supremacists.
Which takes us back to Tumwater Washington. It’s part of a three-city area centered on Olympia, one of the most liberal localities in the state,. It’s population is 82 percent white, 3.5 percent black (another 3 percent report being of both European and African ancestry). Thus, when a history teacher included the Confederate battle flag in this week’s Veterans Day observance, it became an opportunity for progressives to demonstrate their differentiation from whites who might tolerate the flag (and therefore support Trump or white supremacy).
While those who spoke up were sincerely demonstrating their personal values, they were also working to negotiate the social identity of their community. Here’s a sample:
“I just have no tolerance for that flag because it represents something that is ugly in our history and we need to bury it,” said [former teacher Karen] Milliman. “I felt like crying, then I got mad, then I got crying again because that’s not who I want to be associated with.”
Is there any problem with denouncing a heritage of slavery and segregation? Not on its face. I think we can assume that no one involved in this event was promoting any thing close to those concepts. The school display dealt with history. In a divided present, however, we are renegotiating our history. The question is a matter of degree — how much emotional energy do we put into that symbol?
Saying the Confederate flag is not fit to be displayed in our schools, even as history, raises another question: how will our students deal with those who don’t share their views on the matter?
Let’s look at an analogy in real time. Here’s what former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden had to say last month about compromising with folks who had radically different views on moral issues:
“Even in the days when I got there, the Democratic Party still had seven or eight old fashioned Democratic segregationists,” he told a crowd in Birmingham. “You’d get up and you’d argue like the devil with them. Then you’d go down and have lunch or dinner together. The political system worked. We were divided on issues, but the political system worked.”
Biden, who served two terms with America’s first and only black president after 36 years in the US Senate, was touting the ability and willingness of progressive and racist members of Congress to negotiate and compromise in the name of political pragmatism.
Markos Moulitsas, publisher of the progressive blog Daily Kos, had this to say about the idea:
“… if he’s that stupid to believe that shit, then he’s no longer got any business being in the public face. The various wings of the Democratic Party may disagree on a bunch of things, but the one thing that unites us is the realization that the right wants nothing more than a white supremacist autocracy that would rather see liberals dead or in chains. You don’t seek consensus with Nazis. You destroy them.”
Strong words. And strong feelings. Which, again, may seem fair (even righteous) to those who agree.
But Biden has the credibility when it comes to actually building majorities and passing laws. Democracy as practiced in the United States is built on and compromise, what with our two chambers of Congress and separation of powers.
The poll numbers for compromise, however, appear to be falling on the left and the right. It’s not hard to look at Biden’s remarks and Moulitsas’ reaction as a bigger, national version of Tumwater’s flag debacle.
Key is the phrase “I just have no tolerance for…” The flag wasn’t the school mascot, wasn’t waved by white supremacist protesters in a parade, wasn’t even displayed on a vehicle as a personal political statement. It was carried by students in a display of historic American flags. (Not an especially nuanced display. One could argue that it is not an American flag, and not even the flag of the Confederacy.) Some of the polls on what to do with Confederate statues have found support for moving them to museums or cemeteries. Yet, many found even a contextualized appearance of the battle flag In Tumwater upsetting. That this appearance generated news coverage is remarkable in itself. To northwest liberals, it is becoming the flag that must not be seen.
Meanwhile, in the South, a Texas sheriff made national news by suggesting he could charge a driver with disorderly conduct for displaying a profane anti-Trump sticker.
Frankly, I’m not sure what all this means in the larger sense. But in terms of this project, it means I can’t study Confederate identity without paying attention to its opposite, because as the old saying goes, no one is an island, to themselves entire.