Game of Flags

"Battle of Kennesaw Mountain" by Kurz and Allison, c. 1891. (Credit: Library of Congress)

“Battle of Kennesaw Mountain” by Kurz and Allison, c. 1891. (Credit: Library of Congress)

How exquisitely American, after a psychotic racist with a gun kills nine people who were studying the Bible in church, to address the incident not by taking guns away from psychos, or limiting their future access to guns, but by lowering a flag!

And what a historical flag! This is a flag which Southern Americans followed when fighting Union forces, an emblem of the cause that captured the devotion of fervent Christians like Stonewall Jackson and brilliant commanders such as Robert E. Lee.

Readers of this blog may remember that in a previous post (“On Waving Flags”) I confessed both my respect for flags and my general dislike of them. Future readers of our book, Hunt the Devil, will come to know that we warn against the perils of demonization of enemies and opponents as an activity that is conducive to war and detrimental to a vibrant democracy.

The problem with de-humanizations and devil hunts is not only that we distort the nature of our enemy to our disadvantage, but also that we fall prey to a fatal illusion: when we say that our enemy is evil, we also say that we are good. Since “they” are bad they do bad things; since “we” are good, nothing we do can possibly be “bad.” For thousands of years, spiritual leaders have warned us that this is the moment of doom before the fall.

The American sprinters Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Peter Norman during the award ceremony of the 200 m race at the 1968 Olympic Games. (Credit: Angelo Cozzi / Mondadori Publishers)

The American sprinters Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Peter Norman during the award ceremony of the 200 m race at the 1968 Olympic Games. (Credit: Angelo Cozzi / Mondadori Publishers)

A recent article in Mother Jones traces a brief history of the demonization and prohibition of the Confederate flag. We are pleased with ourselves because we take down the Confederate flag during the last few days; and yet if it was to come down, the flag—most importantly what it represents in modern America—should have disappeared decades ago. We desecrate the Southern flag as symbol of hatred, racism and slavery; but we ignore the fact that within my lifetime, two African-American athletes were harried and persecuted because they pointed out, with a symbolic gesture at the 1968 Olympics, that the U.S. flag was a symbol of hatred, racism and oppression.

I live next to the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona. All that is necessary for your point of view to change is to look at things through the eyes of First Peoples. In A Century of Dishonor (1881), Helen Hunt Jackson documented the fact that there is nothing you can say about the Stars and Bars that you cannot also say about the Stars and Stripes.

In Arizona, racists, bigots and white supremacists do not wrap themselves in the Confederate flag; they rather pledge their allegiance—boldly and belligerently—to the U.S. flag.

If we take down the flag that is symbolic of slavery, what should we do with the flag that is symbolic of genocide?

OG

The Seventh U.S. Cavalry charging into Black Kettle's village at daylight, November 27, 1868. (Credit: Harper's Weekly)

The Seventh U.S. Cavalry charging into Black Kettle’s village at daylight, November 27, 1868. (Credit: Harper’s Weekly)

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2 comments

  1. There is a clear difference between the two flags. Maybe Arizona is the anomaly, but it is not the US flag that is the symbol of white pride in most of the American south. White supremacists have long wrapped themselves in the confederate flag, especially during the era when lynching was made a federal crime (passed so the feds could step in and prosecute when states wouldn’t) and when desegregation was being forced on the south — in fact, that’s when the flag made its comeback. Now that the flag is under attack, the KKK is trying to rally to keep it. Yes, the US and Canada are both responsible for atrocities in regard to aboriginal populations, but the US flag flew over freed slaves while the confederate flag was flown when people would rather die than lose the institution of slavery in the southern states (the states own words make it clear that the catalyzing issue was slavery, not merely states rights). Removing the confederate flag does not mean that race-based violence will end, but this is the message leaving it up says to people of color: “The people in power here are proud of our history and our defiance of your civil rights. We owned you. You were property. Don’t forget it.” Symbols are powerful. Removing a symbol is not enough on its own, but in my view it’s a step in the right direction.

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    1. Many thanks for your engaged reply.

      No question that symbols have power, and no argument from me about the removal of the Confederate flag from public buildings. There is, I agree, a clear difference between the two flags: we choose to acknowledge the dark aspects of the Southern flag (no question that it has them), and prefer to emphasize the positive aspects of the US flag (no question also that it has them too). My point is that in doing this we fail to acknowledge, as Scripture warns us, the “beam in our own eye.” And now that we are feeling smug and morally superior to Southerners and take down their flag, perhaps it is the time to point out that the US flag flew over decades of slavery in the 19th century before the Confederate flag was even conceived. And that if it is right to point out (and it is) the associations of the Southern flag with slavery and white supremacy, we cannot, in all justice, fail to pint out the associations of the U.S. flag with aboriginal genocide.

      One final point: the KKK also wields the cross and the fiery crucifix as a symbol of supremacy. Does this invalidate the sacrifice of the Messiah on the Cross?

      Bright blessings always,

      OG

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