Earlier this year, my rural Massachusetts hometown became unexpectedly embroiled in controversy, after a police officer mounted a Confederate flag at his home in plain view of the 10-year-old African American boy who lived across the street. The boy’s parents, raising their son in the age of Tamir Rice, naturally felt somewhat alarmed to discover that local law enforcement harbored Confederate sympathies. The town’s Human Rights Commission (we have those here) was promptly alerted and a town meeting was called. There, most attendees condemned the officer’s actions and tried to explain the (seemingly) obvious racial subtext.
But plenty of town residents defended the officer. The local newspaper heard from readers insisting that “saying someone is racist by owning a flag” was far more racist than the flag itself. Another encouraged the boy’s family to “get over it,” lamenting that “if it’s not a flag, it’s how you say ‘happy holidays.’ If it’s not that, it’s a Starbucks cup.” And the officer’s own response? “The flag has no negative connotations to me.”
One can sympathize, for perhaps a second, with those professing themselves baffled by anyone “mad about a flag.” But for them, it may be useful to consider how the same response would sound if someone hoisted a “Death to Black People” flag with a picture of a lynching on it. “I can’t believe you’re mad about a flag; next you’ll be mad about a coffee cup” doesn’t sound quite so reasonable when we draw out what the Confederacy means to a black audience. (Remember, too, that it was not social justice types but right-wing Christians who threw a fit over the insufficient festiveness of the paper cups at Starbucks.) But the more curious question is: if the flag doesn’t have any negative connotations, what possible connotations does it have, when flown in small-town New England? What causes people born and raised in the North, many of them with no historical or familial connection to the South, to align themselves with a symbol of Southern pride, treason, and slavery?
When challenged, fans of the Stars ’n’ Bars have plenty of rehearsed answers. Most often, they will say they appreciate the Confederacy’s place in American history and lament the efforts of revisionist historians to erase it from our collective memory. And following up with “Appreciate what about it, precisely?” will get one nothing except mumbled clichés about the rebel spirit.
The charge that the left is attempting to wipe away history is a strange one. In reality, it would be nearly impossible to find a left-leaning historian who doesn’t want Americans to talk more about the Civil War, slavery, and Reconstruction in order to better understand modern institutional racism. Nobody is less inclined to erase the Confederacy from American history than the left. When we do see efforts to remove inconvenient facts from the standard curriculum, they usually come from conservatives in the South. It was the Texas Board of Education who refused to allow the fact-checking of history textbooks that used hilariously banal euphemisms to describe chattel slavery, referring to slaves as “immigrants” and “workers.” The movement to sanitize and decontextualize Confederate imagery is a far greater crime against the integrity of the historical record than the efforts of leftists to point out that the South did not just stand for “states’ rights,” but the states’ right to maintain a very particular thing. It’s their own fact-blindness that causes history-challenged conservatives to be genuinely stunned that anyone would want to remove the flag from the South Carolina State House after an avowed neo-Confederate and white supremacist massacred nine black churchgoers.
Understanding the cultural pathology behind Northern use of the Confederate flag is like understanding the rise of Donald Trump as a serious politician. It is inexplicable, essentially unfathomable. Yet one can attempt tentative hypotheses, which involve a nuanced examination of race, class, the rural/urban divide, and the widespread human attraction to nauseating kitsch. Just as one can only hope to approximate the structural causes of our 45th president, one can only guess cautiously at why, in the Berkshires of Connecticut and Massachusetts, the Stars and Stripes and the Stars and Bars can hang from the same flagpole without anyone batting an eye or sensing a paradox.
The entire idea of the flag as an enduring Southern symbol is its own revisionist lie. After all, the Stars and Bars flag was barely used in the Old South, revived only in the mid-20th century by white supremacists who would rather see black children hanged from trees than given equal access to the public school system. The symbols of the Confederacy had largely remained the domain of veterans groups until they were deliberately resurrected as a way to resist the Civil Rights Movement. The rebirth began shortly after World War II, when Truman’s decision to integrate the Army increased tensions between Northern and Southern Democrats and inspired Strom Thurmond to run for president as a Dixiecrat. Thurmond, the grandson of a Confederate veteran and a staunch segregationist, employed the battle flag in his campaign as an explicitly racist gesture. In 1956, Georgia creatively incorporated the battle flag design into its state flag to protest Brown v. Board of Education.
In 1961, Governor George Wallace raised the battle flag over the Alabama state capitol. Wallace, one of the most passionate defenders of segregation, also espoused a white-centered form of populism. He targeted the federal government not just because it outlawed segregated schools, but because it enriched elites at the expense of the common man. He tailored his message to blue-collar white voters who felt left behind and condescended to by Washington. Wallace had a gift for pandering: “…when the liberals and intellectuals say the people don’t have any sense, they talkin’ about us people… But hell, you can get good solid information from a man drivin’ a truck, you don’t need to go to no college professor”, he said in 1966. Rather than embracing a truly populist platform like Huey Long in the 1930s, Wallace encouraged his white supporters to direct most of their anger toward newly enfranchised blacks. When he ran as an independent in the 1968 presidential election he won 13.5% of the popular vote, a significant improvement upon Thurmond’s 2.4%. Despite being a neoconfederate at heart, he made significant headway outside the South, attracting tens of thousands at rallies above the Mason-Dixon line; his populist rhetoric and outsider image endeared him to blue-collar whites as far north as Wisconsin. Many union members who would have otherwise voted Democratic bought into his warning that integration would destroy the labor movement. (As always, people straddling the line between the lower and middle classes were the easiest prey for fear-based politics.) Through all this, Wallace stood with the Confederate flag behind him, figuratively and literally. Among the many disastrous consequences of the 1968 election was the permanent association of unpolished white populism with Southern pride. From then on, it became a safe bet that whenever lower-middle-class white resentment bubbled to the surface, no matter where in the country, it would come wrapped in the Confederate flag.
Northern whites lack a unified ethnocultural identity. This could be due to the outcome of the Civil War—the victors may write history, but the losers are often awash in fear, resentment, and self-pity. Such forces bind the populace together and can prove very dangerous in the hands of nationalists (think interwar Germany). It may also be due to their relative diversity; in the 19th and 20th centuries America received a massive influx of immigrants from all over Europe and the majority settled in the heavily industrialized Northeast and mid-Atlantic. Maintaining a straightforward regional identity in the face of constant demographic upheaval is difficult if not impossible.
Now, imagine yourself in the rural North in an age where it is mandated that you consciously create a capital-I Identity for yourself. One is supposed to create this “identity” through consumer choices and Facebook cover photos. You are white, as are most of the people you know. You have a high school education and all your employment prospects are either blue collar or low-level white collar. You subscribe to a personal philosophy that emphasizes disciplined physical labor as the bedrock of proper morality, but you also take pride in your lack of city-boy etiquette and frequently engage in lighthearted but legal hedonism. How do you categorize yourself? What do you “identify” as?
Well, fortunately, an identity just for you has been consolidated into a few symbols, hobbies, and character traits, turned into a packaged cultural commodity for your instantaneous adoption and consumption. This identity is The South. The fake, commodified South, that is, not to be confused with the actually existing South, which has a rich cultural history and (unlike the commodified South) has black people in it. This imaginary South is about all-camo outfits and huntin’, fishin’, and spittin’ to spite coastal elites who want to make it illegal to hunt, fish, and spit. The commodified South is Duck Dynasty, McDonald’s sweet tea, and country songs that have “country” in the title. People seem to really like this stuff, which is why, compared to other regions, the South is overrepresented among Zippo lighter designs and truck decals.
Partially divorced of context, what was once a symbol of an aristocratic slave society becomes, paradoxically, part of a tradition of populist Americana along with John Wayne, Chief Wahoo, and the Pixar version of Route 66. Fully divorced of context, the flag becomes a symbol of vague, noncommittal rebellion. It takes its place alongside a series of meaningless but ubiquitous kitschy products including wolf shirts, the pissing Calvin decal, skull-adorned lighters, and overly aggressive Minions memes about what people can and can’t do before you’ve had your coffee.
The small bit of context that the flag does retain is used to sinister ends. Among rural whites, a watered-down version of neoconfederate ideology serves as a kind of mutant substitute for class consciousness. This is especially evident in modern country music, where many songs are essentially a bullet point list of stereotypes: big trucks, cheap beer, dirt roads, and physically demanding blue collar work. Take, for example, Lee Brice’s 2014 smash hit “Drinking Class”:
“I belong to the drinking class / Monday through Friday, man we bust our backs / If you’re one of us, raise your glass / I belong to the drinking class.”
The structure of Brice’s lyrics shows a keen awareness of socioeconomic class. But this is not the labor movement’s conception of class, with its exhortation to social change. The Lee Brice theory of class is empty of meaning. It’s hopeless and sad; nothing is left but solipsistic in-group pride and alcoholism. The vice neuters any revolutionary fervor. A member of the Drinking Class isn’t interested in social climbing and he would never dream of doing away with class distinctions altogether.
The Drinking Class man knows life is pretty rotten, that you work and drink until you die. But, strongly encouraged by millionaire tribunes of the working poor like the guy from Dirty Jobs, the guy from Duck Dynasty, and the guy from Larry the Cable Guy (plus fellow reality star Donald J. Trump), he adopts flimsy, prejudiced rationalizations to explain his very real feelings of being forgotten and exploited. He justifies his toil as morally necessary, rather than exploitative. And like a surly teen alienated from his parents and bored with masturbation, he joins a cultural clique and cements his place in it by lashing out at its real or imaginary enemies. To get back at the elites who mocked him for making little sense, he begins to do things that make little sense, such as flying a Confederate flag in Massachusetts. (Half-assed clique membership is often embarrassing, like when homophobic metalheads get tricked into wearing leather daddy outfits.)
We can therefore find explanations, if not justifications, for the peculiar existence of our Yankee Confederate. Some of it is stupid, some of it is racist, and some of it is a misguided response to the need for identity and solidarity. Like depressed teens, alienated rural whites aren’t imagining their suffering, and they do have legitimate grievances about the unending despair of the American status quo. But they have reacted in a way that’s difficult to defend either rationally or morally.
The solution here is to organize against the policies that created an alienated rural working class in the first place. To the extent that the flag is a product of the search for identity and community, one needs to have a better, less appalling identity to offer people. To the extent that the flag is a product of racism, what is racism itself a product of? Working class whites have often blamed their problems on nonwhites, but this is irrational scapegoating. And since it’s irrational scapegoating, the left should think seriously about how to give people real explanations for their problems, as well as solutions. The New England Confederate is a bizarre and horrifying sight, but he is not without his structural causes. If we can offer a unifying message to working class people of all races, we may see fewer members of the Drinking Class embrace backward cultural symbols and buy into the South as consumer lifestyle brand. Stars and Bars keychains may create a cheap rush of ersatz proletarian solidarity, but they are no substitute for the real thing.
Illustrations by Gurleen Rai.