Entering the Fray

by I.A. Isherwood

My father asked me yesterday what I thought about the Confederate flag. He wasn’t looking for a deep reflection on the nature of history, memory, culture, and politics. He was instead just looking for an honest opinion from someone who thinks about history. And I suppose that’s what I do for a living.

I told him plainly that I thought the Confederate flag should not be flown from state buildings. The flag is representative of a rebellion that plunged our nation into the greatest trial of human suffering we have ever experienced. It represents a government that initiated secession to protect the institution of slavery: a government that facilitated disunion and forced the nation into civil war to protect our greatest national sin.

I know … high horse. History is always complicated, but the fact that the flag is a symbol of defiance and rebellion, both then and now, seems pretty straightforward.

My father was hardly surprised. I’m an academic, reared and educated in the north, and one with very little patience for historical distortions, even those that are interesting intellectually.

But what did surprise me was my impatience and visceral anger towards those who use their right of free speech specifically to offend other people. A big part of this debate is about decency – about how we treat each other – and the type of society we want to live in. I think this debate is so important because it forces us to examine the legacy of the Civil War in light of our current social contract. It also forces us to think about why historical interpretations matter.

I don’t think this issue is about free speech. It is about a social and political undercurrent in this country that has never really accepted Lincoln’s ‘new birth of freedom’ and has, since 1865, waged a cultural insurgency against the rest of us who do. All flags are symbols and those who most vehemently wave the Confederate flag are using it the way it has always been used: as a symbol of defiance.

Defiance towards what? Well that’s a complicated question. The symbolic meaning of the flag has taken different forms in the last 150 years, but it has not lost its basic rhetorical purpose: divisiveness dressed up in a very thin housecoat of heritage.

My hope is that the current conversation can lead to more intelligent discussion about the type of society we live in. I fear that this will not be the case and instead the conversation itself will only deepen the divide between those who feel persecuted by political correctness and those of us who believe in the most basic form of decency – not being a jerk.

Unfortunately, simple decency seems in low supply these days.