While I was on the road the past couple of weeks, a heck of a brouhaha erupted over historical memory, specifically the place of the Confederate flag, Confederate monuments, and the Confederacy generally in contemporary American life.
I was getting snippets of all the arguments on Twitter, but I didn’t really have time to make my usual rounds of the historical blogosphere. In fact, over the last few weeks, I haven’t been thinking about American history or historical memory as much as I usually do. Instead, I’ve been enjoying the company of old friends, gorging on good food, visiting places oriented toward non-historical subjects, and going to the movies. (Well, I’ve actually been going to the same movie, over and over again.)
To tell you the truth, I was pretty glad I had other things to distract me, mostly because I was already weary of the whole thing as soon as I got wind of it. If you follow the intersections of history, politics, culture, and current events long enough, then you can usually predict the lines along which arguments of this sort are going to run.
The only thing that’s surprised me about this latest Confederacy kerfuffle has been the speed at which it became so widespread. Usually these debates play out within the context of one particular town or organization trying to figure out what to do with a monument or a flagpole, and the only people who take an interest are the local media, a few heritage groups, and those of us who blog about historical stuff. With this round, though, it seems like everybody’s in the fray.
Well, for whatever it’s worth, here’s my take.
I think it’s perfectly reasonable to be uncomfortable about seeing a Confederate battle flag on the grounds of a state capitol, or any other space where it’s implied that a sitting government is wholeheartedly endorsing the ideals on which the Confederacy was founded. The secessionists were quite explicit about why they were doing what they did, and they did it because they felt slavery was threatened if they remained in the Union. Slavery was simply the Confederacy’s raison d’être.
This is not to say that every Confederate soldier enlisted or fought to uphold slavery, still less that the desire to preserve slavery and white supremacy lay behind every thought and action of white southerners in the Civil War era. Nor is it to say that descendants of Confederate soldiers have no business remembering and honoring their ancestors. But it is to say that without slavery, there would have been no Confederacy.
It is therefore not at all inappropriate to keep statehouse flagpoles Confederate flag-free.
Am I, then, opposed to the display of Confederate flags in any context other than the exhibition of artifacts in museums? No, I’m not. I don’t see anything wrong with using the battle flag to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers, or in certain other commemorative settings. Indeed, I thought the W&L students’ demand to remove the flags from Lee Chapel was a bit much, and I said so at the time.
Nor do I agree with every position that supporters of Confederate de-flagging have taken in the recent brouhaha. As a preservationist, I’m generally opposed to moving longstanding Confederate monuments. To me, monuments are more of a historic preservation issue than anything else. We maintain old structures and works of public art because they have intrinsic historic value, not because we agree with the statements made by their creators.
I think my opinion on old Confederate monuments squares up pretty well with Andy Hall’s post from yesterday, which I heartily commend to your attention:
While I adamantly support the authority of local governments to make these decisions, I’m not sure that a reflexive decision to remove them is always the best way of addressing the problems we all face together. Monuments are not “history,” as some folks seem to believe, but they are are historic artifacts in their own right, and like a regimental flag or a dress or a letter, they can tell us a great deal about the people who created them, and the efforts they went to to craft and tell a particular story.
I think we need to be done, done, with governmental sanction of the Confederacy, and particularly public-property displays that look suspiciously like pronouncements of Confederate sovereignty. The time for that ended approximately 150 years ago. But wholesale scrubbing of the landscape doesn’t really help, either, if the goal is to have a more honest discussion about race and the history of this country. I’m all for having that discussion, but experience tells me that it probably won’t happen. It’s much easier to score points by railing against easy and inanimate targets.
Furthermore, I’ll go ahead and state that I think some of the actions taken in response to this latest round of controversy have been downright asinine. Banning Civil War video games because the pixelated Confederates are carrying Confederate flags? That was like something out of The Onion. (What are video game Confederate troops supposed to carry? A banner with the Cobra emblem?)
I’ll also happily go on record to denounce vandalism aimed at historic monuments in all cases whatsoever. It’s not that I don’t understand why these monuments can still arouse strong feelings. It’s just that, as a preservationist, I cannot get behind any effort to deface historic structures, property, or artworks.
But, as I said, I think it’s eminently reasonable to remove the Confederate flag from state capitols. And to self-professed defenders of Confederate heritage who are rushing to keep those flags flying, to set up new flags on private property, or to buy up Confederate flag merchandise just to prove a point, I have a proposal. It echoes an argument I made on this blog five years ago.
Why not direct that energy and money elsewhere and really preserve some heritage? Instead of defending reproduction flags and buying Confederate emblem merch, use your time and money to preserve actual Civil War land and artifacts.
Sure, you can start a petition urging legislators to keep a piece of synthetic fabric flying from a pole on the statehouse grounds…or you can start a petition urging them to pass legislation keeping historic ground intact, and to fund the facilities where actual relics are conserved and treated.
You can spend thousands of dollars setting up ginormous Confederate flags on private land just to give de-flaggers the middle finger…or you can give that money to an organization that will purchase endangered battlefield land where real Civil War soldiers fought and died.
You can hold a rally to demand that a historic symbol be displayed out of reach and free of any context whatsoever…or you can support museums and archives where genuine historic artifacts are kept in stewardship for all of us and our descendants to enjoy.
Let me submit that the stuff of “heritage” isn’t flying from a modern flagpole or emblazoned on the roof of a toy car. It’s on battlefield land that’s threatened by development, and it’s sitting in underfunded museums and archives that need money to keep it in intact.
As someone born and raised in the South—someone who loves the South and the people who live here, someone would not live anywhere else—I’d much rather see our historic sites and artifacts preserved so that Americans of all ages, sections, races, backgrounds, and political persuasions can enjoy them and learn from them than see a reproduction flag hanging from a pole.
Wouldn’t you rather rally to keep the real, raw material of history around?