On June 17, 2015, a 21-year-old man named Dylann Roof shot and killed nine African-American worshipers during a Bible Study at the historically-important Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. According to Roof’s own statements, the mass shooting was racially motivated; in fact, Roof apparently wanted to start a race war.
That Dylann Roof’s actions were motivated by racist bigotry should not be controversial – he told us so in unambiguous language – although, institutional racism being what it is, there are still media elements scrambling to repaint his actions as the symptoms of mental illness. There are other aspects of the case up for debate, however. Dylann Roof’s website contains pictures of Roof posing with a Confederate flag – much more on this in a moment – the flag often identified with the rebellion that led to the American Civil War. The surfacing of Roof’s apparent Confederate sympathies has re-ignited a fierce debate about the lingering presence of Confederate flags in America, especially on government property.
Now before we continue, I would like to make one thing clear: take a look at the right-hand flag in the second meme above. You’ll hear a lot of people referring to that flag as the Confederate flag, but it was never the official national flag of the Confederate States of America. The rectangular flag sporting a blue St. Andrew’s Cross emblazoned with white stars, set against a red background, is more reminiscent of the the Second Confederate Navy Jack, used from 1863 to 1865, or the Army of Tennessee Battle Flag. The Army of Northern Virginia used a similar battle flag, but it was square rather than rectangular. YouTuber C.G.P. Grey has a video sorting out some of the confusion surrounding the various Confederate flags.
Still, for all the various flags that flew above the government and the armies of the Confederacy, the so-called rebel flag is what most people think of when one says Confederate flag. Please, spare me the pedantic comments . I know, okay? I know.
As of this post, the Confederate battle flag still flies above government property in several states, including monuments to Confederate soldiers. The horrific murders at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church, and Dylann Roof’s connection to the flag have caused many people to question why state governments are still displaying a symbol that, to many, represents racial hatred and slavery. Defenders of the flag say that it’s not about hatred, but about Southern pride and heritage. People who just wish the issue would go away complain about their free speech rights being trampled upon.
Oh, and let’s not forget about the historical revisionists who insist that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery anyway and who want to know why everybody’s getting so upset about it.
I thought it would be helpful – nay, necessary – to take a look at the claims being made or implied by these memes.
- Claim: Dylann Roof is crazy.
It seems like an open-and-shut case: anybody who would brutally murder nine innocent people must be absolutely crazy; what else could you say about him? To tell the truth, I don’t buy it. Crazy is a hard word to define, and even harder to apply to a person. I submit that the only disease in Dylann Roof’s mind was intense racial hatred.
- Claim: The Confederate flag is being banned.
This is false. The word banned implies that you do not have a choice about whether to fly a Confederate flag on your porch, or to adorn your mud-splattered pickup truck with a Confederate flag bumper sticker. You still have a choice. You can still get a Confederate flag tattoo on your forehead, and you can still wear your Confederate flag swim trunks. Nobody is telling you that you cannot adorn every square inch of your body, vehicle, and home with Confederate flags. You probably shouldn’t do that, but you can if you want to. Your choice.
(Just so you’re aware: if you do walk around wearing a Confederate flag tee-shirt, other people have the choice to think of you as a racist douchebag. Freedom all around, right?)
Here’s what’s really happening, alarmist meme maker. Several state governments are considering voluntarily removing Confederate flags from government property. They’re doing this because they realize the flag has a long connection with slavery and racism, and it’s upsetting to many of the people they claim to represent. In an effort to be more inclusive and representative of all Americans, these states are choosing to distance themselves from the flag and its history.
The word banned might be used in connection with many retailers’ decision to stop selling Confederate flag merchandise. In that sense, corporate headquarters are banning their outlets from selling the flag. But the flag itself is not banned in America. That’s an important distinction to make.
- Claim: Stomping on the American flag shouldn’t be protected speech (or the legality of stomping on the American flag is somehow connected to state governments’ decisions about flying the Confederate flag).
I guess this is a matter of opinion. I personally have no desire to stomp on the flag, but like Evelyn Beatrice Hall, I feel very strongly that you should have the right. People who conflate these two issues are missing the point. Which leads me to my next quibble…
- Claim: This is a free speech issue.
No it isn’t. Once again, nobody is saying that you cannot make, purchase, own, or fly a Confederate flag in any of the fifty states. Your personal rights to expression are not being infringed upon if South Carolina finally decides to pull down the Confederate flag that flies above the State Capitol grounds. If Wal-Mart will not sell you a Confederate flag suspender thong, I’m sure you can find somebody who will. Your life will continue, your rights unimpeded, just as before.
Of course, these aren’t the only erroneous claims made during the recent Confederate flag controversy. If I may, I’d like to address a few other misconceptions you may have encountered in social media or at family gatherings.
- Claim: The Confederate flag is a symbol of Southern pride, not racism. Also, the Civil War was about states’ rights and high taxes; it was never about slavery until Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
Regardless of the fact that some Southerners have adopted the Confederate flag as a symbol of pride, the claim that it’s not also a racist symbol has never been true. By its own admission, the Confederacy seceded from the Union in order to protect the institution of slavery. The CSA committed itself from the outset to the idea that black people were inferior to white people, and that their “natural and normal condition” was to be enslaved to whites. The Confederate battle flag waved over the army of a nation that considered slavery a “positive good“.
After the Civil War, the Confederate battle flag saw little use until it was resurrected in the 1940’s by a political party that strongly opposed desegregation. Remind me again how it’s not a racist symbol?
The Tattooed Professor provides tons of links that brilliantly destroy Southern apologists’ arguments about the Civil War, slavery, and hate. He also demonstrates the futility of engaging said apologists in debate. If you have a friend or family member who peppers their Facebook wall with pro-Confederate memes, you might direct him to that post. Don’t expect it to convince him, but at least you’ve introduced him to the truth.
- Claim: The United States flag flew over a slave-holding nation much longer than the Confederate flag did, but you don’t see people clamoring to take that down.
Well, some people are. But that’s not the point.
Yes it’s true: the United States of America has committed some horrible atrocities beneath the Stars and Stripes, including a prolonged period of racist slavery. But while the Confederacy fought and died in defense of that peculiar institution, the United States as a nation matured and moved on. The CSA is extinct; a testament to a failed philosophy based on racism and hatred. The United States, for all its warts, lives on. We’re not perfect – we never have been – but I think we’re trying to be. Removing a symbol of racism and oppression from all government property would be a good step toward showing we’re committed to never returning to that dark past.
- Claim: Northerners and black people owned slaves too, you know.
And now they don’t, at least in the United States. How is this justification for the continued presence of the Confederate flag on government property?
- Claim: Lincoln started the Civil War and blah blah blah I want the southern states to be justified in everything they’ve ever done: before, during, and after the Civil War.
Yeah, good luck with that. The rest of us, including your more enlightened Southern peers, will continue to move forward without you.
I’ve discovered this website called Twitter. I don’t know, it probably won’t take off. Anyway, I’ve created an account there called @stupidbadmemes. I have no idea what I’ll use it for, but if you’d like to find out along with me, feel free to check me out over there.