Thursday, August 17, 2017

American Flags and the History of Violence

The offending banner, in its natural environment

So as we sat down to eat at a perfectly pleasant restaurant with an Early American decor theme, I happened to glance to my left and see a banner. Not really a flag, the proportions were all wrong; fly it in the wind, on a battlefield where the infantry needs to know which colors to rally around, and it would hang limply. The only correct word for this red, white, and blue confection is “banner.”

It had a ring of thirteen stars on a blue union, and stripes in red and blue. It also had a fourteenth star inside the ring. And I thought it looked uncomfortably familiar. Like any good resident of the Third Millennium, I reached for my smartphone, because what’s the point of carrying a massively powerful networked computer in your pocket if you can’t occasionally use it to Google things? So I did, and I immediately found what I feared:

This banner sure looked like the Confederate national flag.

We’re accustomed to associating the Confederate States of America with the “Stars and Bars,” a blue St. Andrew’s Cross with white stars on a solid red field. But this wasn’t the national flag of the Confederacy, it was the battle flag of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. That flag gained prominence during the Civil Rights Movement, as a militant white pushback against the idea that black Americans deserve equal standing. But that’s a later addition to the Confederate myth, and one that serves modern rather than historical purposes.

The Confederate national flag had thirteen stars in a ring on the blue union, and three stripes: two red and one white. The banner flying at my left had five stripes, three red and two white, besides the puzzling fourteenth star. I told Sarah that I thought we’d spotted a Confederate flag, just three days after the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. As people sympathetic with civil rights and racial equality, I wondered aloud whether we could eat here.

So naturally Sarah went to speak with the manager. She needed to know whether she was about to give her money to a business that openly advertised sympathies with a treasonous pseudo-nation that fought against the United States to protect slavery. But while she did that, I kept probing, and discovered I’d possibly made a terrible mistake. This wasn’t a Confederate flag, it was a Betsy Ross flag.

The Betsy Ross flag (above) and the Confederate national flag (below)

Both flags have thirteen white stars, a blue union, and red and white stripes. At a brief glance, the only distinguishing characteristic between the two flags is the number of stripes. This probably represents a Confederate attempt to usurp American mythology. As historian Nancy Isenberg writes, Confederates and Northerners sniped incessantly about which represented the real American heritage, calling each other Crackers and Mudsills, respectively.

With five stripes, and the inexplicable fourteenth star, the offending banner clearly was neither a Betsy Ross flag nor a Confederate flag. And when Sarah returned with the manager, who explained the banner was hanging around as part of her store’s post-July 4th decorations, I realized there were other pieces of patriotic kitsch hanging around. I’d wandered into a Hall of Americana for brunch without realizing it.

Sarah and I apologized profusely to the manager. Clearly, in light of recent events, we’d made a significant mistake. Yet had we? Images of America’s slaveholding past linger everywhere. If you count colonial times, and historians do, we were slaveholding longer than we’ve been free. Movies like Gone With the Wind, which openly extols slaveholding society, are considered classics. And many of our Founding Fathers were slaveholders.

President Trump, in the video linked above, makes an equivalency between Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, and George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. This isn’t unfair, since all defended and profited from slavery (though Lee never owned slaves himself). But the equivalency is false. Jackson and Lee fought for a nation that existed to preserve and extend slavery. Washington and Jefferson set the process of liberation in motion… though failed at enacting it themselves.

We ate our French toast in relative peace, surrounded by a comfortingly multiracial dining room that clearly didn’t share our offense at the possibly Confederate banner. We probably hadn’t stumbled into a den of covert racism. Yet I still couldn’t wash the bad aftertaste from my mouth. American society, for all its virtues, still fails to redress its explicitly racist past. People are still dying for the cause. If I’m not willing to speak up, what am I?

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