Tuesday 30 June 2015

Stars and Bars

Along with maps, islands, women in white coats and explosions, The Blob has more than a passing interest in Vexillology - the study of flags.  Flags can be pretty and are occasionally deeply symbolic and are an essential attribute of national identity.  Every country, and probably every county, has a flag and most governments take their flags really seriously: American children pledge allegiance to 
the Stars and Stripes at the beginning of every school day.  There are elaborate protocols for handling the flag - it must never touch the ground; it must never be used on underwear or paper napkins; if hopelessly ragged it must be disposed reverentially preferably by burning in private.

In the 1860s, America was riven by a bloody civil war about the right of several of the states to secede from the Union because of irreconcilable differences over the right to own slaves. It came to a head over the issue of whether the rights should be allowed to extend into the unincorporated territories and allow slavery in the Wild West.  It took half a decade, and more than half a million deaths, to decide that nobody was going to secede and all slaves were to be emancipated. End of slavery is not end of racial discrimination! Humans are inveterate nostalgists, we look back to the past through rose tinted spectacles and cherry pick the positive aspects of times past and air-brush the infant mortality, the casual violence, as well as the lack of smart-phones, cars and frozen pizza.

The Confederacy undoubtedly took a drubbing and endured two generations of officious Reconstruction to dull the pain of loss: financial, cultural and mortal.  There is nobody alive today who experienced the Civil War directly [Albert Henry Woolson, the last surviving veteran from either side, died in 1956 at the age of 109] so it should be possible to put it all behind us and move on.  It's okay to dress up in field-grey uniforms and slouch-hats and re-enact Gettysburg. It's okay for the Dukes of Hazzard to fly the Confederate flag [seen R] as they drive around the Georgia backwoods delivering moonshine. It's okay to sell mugs and tee-shirts sporting that flag.  It's okay for country and western singers to use the same flag as a banner in front of the stage . . . or is it?  If you put it into the context of "I pledge allegiance to the Flag . . . and to the Republic for which it stands . . ." you are bound to ask just what the Stars and Bars stands for.  And then you might ask if anybody in the room might be offended by that symbolism. Whatever about what consenting adults do in private, to fly the Confederate flag regularly outside the State Capitol in Columbia, South Carolina surely cannot be okay. It implies that the legislature collectively would like to restore the status quo ante-bellum. It says bring back slavery. That is the position anyway of Bree Newsome and other anti-racism activists. She scaled the 10m high flag-pole [youtube] Saturday morning and removed the offending object but was promptly arrested and charged with defacing a monument.  But, as a commenter on metafilter made clear, the flag is not flying over the Capitol, it is flying over a Confederate war memorial next to the Capitol. It is generally considered appropriate to remember dead soldiers even if they fought on the wrong side; if only because "a bayonet is a weapon with a worker at each end".

If you want to take the position that flags are just fripperies and a bit of fun, then I'm with you. I had a bit of a poke at the BLT folks and their flags as an envoi to the equality [good] news from SCOTUS; suggesting that perhaps the best qualified people <?who they?> had probably not had much hand in the vexillological design. Why didn't they listen to Roman Mars?  But if you take flags seriously then there are serious issues at stake in South Carolina and elsewhere in the Southern States. 

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