DENNIS GARVIN: Symbols of The Confederacy

Dennis Garvin

The removal of visible confederate symbols from our visual culture has become the latest dance craze, usually encouraged by the same folks who celebrate diversity.  Interestingly, this group consists of white folks who want to trumpet their egalitarian ethics and African American groups who purport to speak for all black people, without ever conducting any polls to confirm the sentiment.

I have spoken to many black friends and no one expresses offense at the confederate flag.  While this is a very unscientific survey, it is relevant because they and I live in the state of Virginia, a commonwealth full of such symbols.  These folks are mostly concerned with things like paychecks, price of gasoline, and the education of their children; things that have daily relevance.

We have forgotten the flap over the name of the football team, the Washington Redskins.  Hyperventilated rhetoric prevailed until someone actually did statistical surveys of Native Americans and found that they were not offended by the team name; rather, looking upon it as somewhat a source of pride.

The offended party in this case was mostly white bread citizens who presumed to arrogate unto themselves the right to be offended on behalf of all Native Americans.  The controversy has gone quietly away, now that it was found to be fueled by patronizing, presumptuous white people.

Even if we grant that the move to destroy all vestiges of the Confederacy is endorsed by most African Americans, it would be educational to look at the results of similar moves in the past.  Not all reactions were anticipated.

A simple, recent endeavor was the Taliban’s destruction of Buddhist icons in Afghanistan, 2001.  Statues over 2000 years old were dynamited, the Taliban justifying this by quoting the Koran’s injunction against idolatry.  What this did was confirm to the world community that extreme Islam was intolerant and that they ‘did not play well with others.’

In 17th century England, Oliver Cromwell did the same thing to the statues of saints in English churches, and for similar reasons (interestingly, Oliver did not touch Ely Cathedral.  The reason?  It was his mother’s home church).  Oliver’s extremism helped weaken his ‘republic’ and hasten the Restoration of King Charles II.

After the Jacobite rebellion (remember ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’?) the English conquerors tried to eradicate the Scottish Highland clans. One move was to outlaw the wearing of any Tartan (plaid).  When the Prince Regent began enjoying the Scottish adventure novels of Sir Walter Scott, tartans became the rage.  Today, if you see Prince Charles on vacation at Balmoral castle, he is wearing the Royal family tartan. A tartan for the English royalty.

As for eradicating all Confederate symbols because they reflect slavery, perhaps these same pressure groups should advise foreign countries to follow suit: destroy the Great Wall of China, built with forced labor; Hadrian’s Wall in England, built by English forced labor at the direction of the occupying army of Romans; the Pyramids, also built with slave labor.

These are not symbols of slavery, although built with slave labor.  They are sources of national pride.   England has not eradicated all traces of ancient Roman occupation, nor has Egypt repudiated the Pharaohs.

Some historical symbols of oppression have been adopted as sources of pride by the oppressed group.  In the time of Jesus Christ, the crucifix was a symbol of shame and a curse (Deut 21:23, Gal 3:13) even before it came to represent the Roman method of execution.

The very term ‘Christian,’ translated ‘little Christs,’ was a term of derision aimed at those who embraced the faith.  Both the Cross and the name of Christian have been adopted with pride by those in the faith these past two millennia.

In the French Revolution, the aristocrats used the term ‘sans culottes’ as an insult and term of snobbish derision.  It translates as ‘without breeches.’  Only the wealthy could afford knee breeches (with the attendant need of silk or cotton knee stockings).  The poor wore pantaloons.  At the height of the revolution, a lower class rebel would proudly refer to himself as a sans culottes.

What is common to all the above historical peculiarities is that the symbols came to reflect the overcoming of adversity.  In our country, there is no equivalent group of symbols for the Union Army; it being, quite simply, the army of the USA.  Slavery existed for hundreds of years before the Confederacy appeared.  These symbols reflect, therefore, not slavery, but a time in the history of the nation when it finally came to grips with a monstrous inhumanity.

Why we had to fight a war to abolish slavery when other countries (Brazil, for example) accomplished it without a war is a completely different topic.  In their proper perspective, Confederate symbols reflect a time in our nation when compromise failed and blood (irrespective of race) was shed on both sides of the argument.

There are modern demagogues who want to keep racism on the front burner (even coming up with ‘institutional racism,’ which is convenient because there is no human responsible and it will never be eradicated to the satisfaction of the demagogues).

The last thing in the world these short-sighted folks would want to do is eradicate all symbols of oppression.  It will be a short-term victory but a long-term loss:  without the visual reminders of oppression, people will find it easier to forget.  All minds, black and white, benefit from visual cues to sustain memories.  Take away the cues and you fall back on rhetoric alone.

Be careful what you wish for; you may get it, and you may well get more than you wanted.