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Rebels with a cause

Dissecting the Confederate flag debate

Aaron S. Bayley

In the wake of the massacre of nine black Americans by a 22-year-old white supremacist at an historic African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina, the national debate surrounding the meaning, symbolism, and appropriateness of the Confederate flag has been reignited. On Friday, the flag was lowered from the Statehouse for the first time in 54 years. While many Americans see the flag as a symbol of racial hatred, Others see it as a symbol of Southern pride.

I first became conscious of the Confederate flag as a child, when I watched my favourite TV show, The Dukes of Hazard. Of course, I owned the "General Lee" toy car, a replica of the 1969 Dodge Charger in which cousins Bo and Luke Duke tore around Hazard county, and which sported the flag on its roof. I loved the colours and aesthetic of the Confederate flag; I had no idea who General Lee was nor what the flag represented. A few years ago, I almost bought a replica of the Dimebag Dixie Rebel guitar, the guitar played by Darrell Abbott, the deceased member of the metal band Pantera. The guitar is emblazoned with the Rebel flag and looks fantastic. I ended up buying the signature Schecter guitar used by Avenged Sevenfold guitarist Synyster Gates, but I cannot overstate how close I was to buying the Dixie Rebel. The reason I chose not to buy it was that I was fully aware of the controversy surrounding the flag and the racial, social, historical and political implications surrounding its symbolism. I didn’t want my guitar to be a lightning rod for controversy. Still, it looked cool.

When discussing the Confederate flag, there seems to be two conflicting rights: one is the right to freedom of expression, which is protected by the Constitution; the other is the right to not be offended, which is not. But let’s say you’re an American citizen who is white and not racist. Your ancestors fought for the South in the Civil War, and you proudly fly a Confederate flag on your front lawn to honor their tradition and heritage. Now let’s say your neighbor is black. The two of you are friends, but you know that the flag on your front lawn makes your neighbor uncomfortable, and maybe even hurts his feelings. Now the question becomes a moral, not a legal, one: Does your desire to uphold tradition take precedent over your desire to maintain a friendship? I didn’t buy that guitar because I cared more about its potential to offend than the fact that it looks cool. That doesn't make me a pushover; it makes me more considerate of others. If we put aside the racists who fly the flag as a symbol of white power and racial superiority, we are left with two groups: those who are offended by the flag, and those who are not racists, but who see it as representing a Southern way of life. Surely these two groups can converge to have an open, honest conversation about the flag's historical significance. What exactly are "Southern values"? Can pride in the deeds of our ancestors cloud our better judgement, allowing indoctrination to take hold and preventing us from asking difficult questions? Whether conquerors or the conquered, Americans have a tendency to romanticize war, lionize military men, and create grand narratives that are sanitized and palatable for present and future generations (even the description for the Dixie Rebel guitar states, "The graphic looks like a real fabric flag that has been to battle"). All of this must be held up to the light and scrutinized. 

And so when debating the merits of flying the Confederate flag, Americans in favor should consider whether their firmly-held beliefs can be convincingly extricated from the legacy of slavery; if they cannot, then maybe relegating the flag to historical museums--where they are teaching tools rather than offensive symbols--is the best decision. Pro-Confederate flag bearers have a right to express their beliefs--it's enshrined in the Constitution--but they owe it to themselves, to those they disagree with, and to their country, to have that discussion. 


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