Sunday, July 19, 2015

When A Flag Is Not A Flag

In the summer of 1998, Audrey and I, along with two friends from Edmonton, traveled from our home in Toronto to southern Pennsylvania in order to visit the historic battlefield at Gettysburg.

It was the third visit for the two of us, and a significant trip for a number of reasons.  First and foremost, Audrey was in her second trimester of pregnancy with Fenya, and this was very likely to be our last vacation without children in tow.  This was part of the reason Pete and Brent came out to join us, as it was the end of an era, but the other was that there was a massive reenactment of the battle itself scheduled for its 135th anniversary.

Summer in that part of the U.S. is generally hot and sticky, but Audrey, ever the trooper and enjoying what was probably the most comfortable third of that pregnancy, dealt with the discomfort with her characteristic grace, even when sleeping in a warm tent with three blokes.

The reenactment itself was amazing.  Held in a farmer’s field outside of town in order to better preserve the battlefield, we took our seats in the bleachers early in the day and experienced the concussive might of an immense artillery barrage, watched reenactors from Tennessee march across a dirt field in their bare feet in a painful tribute to historic accuracy, and saw more soldiers conduct Pickett’s Charge than were actually at Pickett’s Charge.

As a souvenir, the four of us picked up commemorative t-shirts declaring “We Survived Pickett's Charge” and featuring a color photo of a battle standard belonging to a Confederate regiment, from Mississippi I believe, that had sustained 90%+ casualties during that fateful engagement.

The fact that this standard was, in fact, the battle flag of the Confederacy, gave us no pause whatsoever.

(In fact, I had another shirt with that now-controversial flag in the background behind an illustration of Virginian Gen. Lewis B. Armistead, and over the caption, “C’mon boys; give them the cold steel!”)

Back in the 20th century, this rebel flag, often mistakenly referred to as the flag of the Confederacy itself, had a less adversarial, more rusticated association. It was a symbol of southern pride or redneck stubbornness, the top of the celebrated ’69 Charger from The Dukes of Hazzard television show, and it was quaint, not frightful, like the first twelve notes of 'Dixie' heard when the General Lee sounded its horn.  Certainly not a racist icon, or at least, I had never thought of it that way.

On this same trip, we ventured into Washington D.C. in order to see the monuments and visit the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum.  Never afraid of looking like tourists, at least when we are, I suggested we wear our identical t-shirts so we could more quickly pick each other out in a crowd, and the others agreed.

Now, for those of you who don’t know, Washington is laid out rather like two cities, the center of which is what you tend to see in movies and television and features the White House, the National Mall and its attendant monuments to Washington and Lincoln, et al.  Wrapped around this pearl is a crowded, noisy urban center like any other, where everyday people live, work and play, and a considerable portion of them happen to be people of color.

And to many of these people, that flag we were wearing had an entirely different connotation.

Touring the monuments close to the Potomac, there were a few people who recognized the shirt and the event it represented, some even approaching us to ask about it, and lamenting that they were unable to attend themselves.  Their accents represented a broad cross-section of America, at least to my ears, from the clipped vowels and broad ‘r’s of the Northeast to the soft slow drawl of the south, but without exception, those inquiring were always white.

When we began walking around Washington, to and from the Smithsonian, I was largely oblivious to the lingering glances, occasional stare and at least one glare we received from African-American Washingtonians, until Audrey heard someone say ‘Black Power’ in a menacing undertone, but within earshot.

Eventually, we finally put two-and-two together, and figured out that, regardless of our intentions, our naiveté regarding the symbol we had donned was causing offense. As Canadian tourists committed to maintaining our stereotypical reputation for politeness, this was particularly embarrassing.

Further to the point, if you know me, or have read my previous posts about the topic, you know I don't have a lot of time for racists, and even this tenuous association with them was almost too much for me to take.

At that point however, far from a change of clothes, there was nothing we could do but grit our teeth and push on.  We hailed a cab and on the driver's advice went to Hogate's for a seafood dinner, and of course our server was black, and seeing our shirts, was tremendously frosty (but not unprofessional) throughout the first half of our meal.

Eager to redeem ourselves in the eyes of at least one of our southern neighbours, we turned up the charm: smiling, making good eye contact, asking her opinion of various menu items, and thanking her for filling our water glasses.  At some point, she asked where we were from, and when we explained a) we were from Canada, and b) that we had come down to watch the 135th Anniversary reenactment, she warmed to us considerably. I can picture the thought bubble over her head, cartoon-style: "(gasp) Why, they aren't bigoted at all - they're just unbelievably dense!" Just to be sure though, we tipped pretty well to boot.

Once we returned home, I wore the shirt infrequently, and never in a situation that would see me in any sort of crowd. Part of me was, and maybe even still is, a little indignant that I could be viewed as intolerant because of wearing a shirt commemorating a period in history.  After all, it was hardly an endorsement; in point of fact, a person from the South could potentially take offense to my displaying the battle standard of a vanquished regiment, or because the flag in question is full of bullet holes. I mean, it is not as though Bo and Luke Duke were poster boys for the white supremacist movement, right?

In the end though, such arguments and rationalizations are wholly irrelevant. The intention behind the symbol is trumped by the significance of what that symbol has become.  

Remember that in the case of South Carolina, the standard that is often mistakenly called the flag of the Confederacy did not fly above the capitol building for the entirety of the twentieth century.  It was raised in 1961, ostensibly in recognition of the centennial of the start of the American Civil War, but stayed up as a sign of resistance to the then-nascent civil rights movement.

I'm trying to imagine someone with a geographically appropriate drawl trying to explain this particular and peculiar vision of progress: "It is not as though this flag is a symbol of our desire to buy and sell other humans as property based on the colour of their skin, no sir!  That ship has sailed.  This here flag symbolizes our great southern heritage and our opposition to granting voting privileges to people who aren't white.  Or perhaps Asian."

Regardless of whether we are talking about extreme racists and hate groups who have used the Confederate flag in their imagery, or people with, let's call them 'racially motivated isolation' issues, who have used it as a sort of password or shibboleth to find like-minded individuals, it is now impossible to separate the flag's historical context from what it has devolved into. As a tool for divisiveness, the flag has effectively and unfortunately become weaponized.

In the final analysis, lowering that flag is about courtesy, a subjective quality that some people care about far more than others, and respecting the unintentional impact of symbols.  

Let's say you were having a friend over for dinner who was recently released from the hospital after having been stabbed in the thigh with a steak knife by some crazed drifter; it wouldn't exactly be the pinnacle of hospitality to bust out the t-bones and extra-sharp serrated cutlery on that particular night, now would it?  Maybe this is better viewed as a great opportunity to dust off the wok and chopsticks, or perhaps tacos.  Is this a concession?  Is it a compromise? After all, you have every right to serve grilled steaks in your own home, and you aren't going to eat them with your fingers, are you?

Maybe, I guess, if you are tremendously committed to eating steak, but in the end, it is hoped that one will act unselfishly, and err on the side of compassion and empathy.

There are people in South Carolina and other areas on the far side of the Mason-Dixon line who are understandably aggrieved and even personally hurt at the negativity now surrounding the Confederate Battle Flag, folks who are not hateful or willfully racist, or still harboring faint hopes for eventual secession as the South Rises Again.  But in the final analysis, they and their heritage are the unfortunate collateral damage in a battle between people struggling to move forward together and willfully ignorant gits who have cloaked their intolerance and xenophobia behind this standard.  There was a time when that flag meant something different, but that isn't what it means now, and to a growing number of people.

I'm sad it took the actions of a damaged racist youth claiming the lives of 9 black churchgoers to prompt South Carolinan legislators  to finally move the Confederate flag off the capitol grounds, but it was clearly the proper thing to do.  Look, when one of the first groups out of the gate to protest the issue on the grounds of capital-F Freedom are the Ku Klux Klan, that is a pretty good indicator you have ended up on the right side of history.

Since the shooting, toy manufacturers have announced that they will no longer sell replicas of the General Lee with the Confederate flag on the roof, and a number of retailers have removed merchandise containing it, including Target, Wal-Mart, and Amazon. The Apple Store tried to follow suit, but most pundits agreed removing Civil War battle games because they (inevitably) contained the flag was probably going a bit far. I imagine the Duke's ride will look a bit plain with a plain orange roof, but alternatives are difficult to agree on.

I can go on at length (and have!) (and likely will again!) about how the American Civil War was as much about economics and state's rights as it ever was about slavery, and I have no plans to incinerate my Pickett's Charge anniversary shirt, but I am choosing to recognize and respect how the flag on it can make other people feel, and act accordingly.

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