Thursday, 16 July 2015

COMMENTARY: The Trouble with a Flag

Battle Flag Of The Army Of Northern Virginia

Part of the fallout from the recent massacre of nine African-American worshippers in a South Carolina church by a lone gunman has of course been the passionate and often embittered discourse on the role and significance of the confederate flag in American history.

For those with a neophyte base of knowledge of the civil war fought in the United States between 1861 and 1865, it has provided a welter of fascinating information about why the war was fought. It has also given a mass airing of insights into the characters of several leading figures on both sides of the conflict including their views on race and their personal records pertaining to the ownership of slaves.

Yet, if anything, many of the views garnered from a wide spectrum of sources merely seem to reinforce this outsider’s impression of an increasingly festering racial, cultural and political polarisation of the United States.

That a flag or insignia of some sort should stir a hornet’s nest of emotions is nothing new.

Symbols and colours often carry deep significance in many societies. For centuries, perhaps from time immemorial, the swastika was a symbol of fortune known by different names by different cultures. And while there are pressure groups among Hindu communities who would wish for a revival of its original identification and meaning, it would be foolhardy to believe that such moves would go unopposed even when grounded on an argument that is clearly at odds with Nazi philosophy.

Evidence of sensitivities aroused by the public display or marketing of particular symbols can be found in the 2011 decision of the European Court of Justice to ban the registration of the Soviet ‘hammer and sickle’ as a trademark within the European Union because it was a “symbol of despotism” for countries such as Latvia and the Czech Republic among those Eastern European countries who endured rule under the communist system for decades.

In Northern Ireland, a place where flags and symbols have always been extremely important, there is an increasing tendency among certain parts of the communities to fly the flags of two Middle Eastern entities. In certain areas populated in the main by Roman Catholics, it is the flag of the Palestinian territories.  In contrast, the flag of Israel is flown in Protestant ones.

Those who understand the history of Ireland as involving on the one hand the colonisation of an indigenous population and their dispossession, or, on the other, the sanctified resettlement by a purposeful people on a civilising mission, will know why each flag resonates alternately as an object of sympathy and of antipathy.

The complexities of the factors which tend to propel nations to civil war are no less present in the one fought between northern and southern states in America. The causes may be simplified, perhaps oversimplified to the point of mythologizing the narrative associated with the path to conflict. The American Civil war is alleged by one school of thought to have been consistently mischaracterised as a war to end slavery.

But South Carolina, the first state to secede, was unambiguous in its declaration that it was safeguarding “the right of property in slaves” against attempts by “the non-slaveholding states” to judge “the propriety of our domestic institutions” and to deny “the rights of property” in human beings.

And the vice president of the confederacy, Alexander Stephens, admitted that the dispute regarding the status of blacks in American civilization was “the immediate cause” of secession. Stephens claimed that the new government of the South was established on the “great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”

It is clear that while the primary aim of the war had been to preserve the union, the issue of slavery, always hovering in the background, later took its place as a specific war aim. Thus, the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1st 1863 as the war was approaching its third year has continued to be taken as evidence that the North was fighting to free slaves while the South was fighting to preserve the slave ystem.

Victors write history goes the well-worn phrase but the impositions on the South were not as harsh as most bitterly fought civil wars or wars of secession. There was not a prolonged army of occupation and the southern states were left with many vestiges of their way of life intact. One of these was the right to incorporate civil war-associated symbols within state flags.

The particular version of the confederate flag that is the object of controversy since the South Carolina slayings may not have universally represented the secessionist movement of the South at the time of the civil war or 'war of southern independence', but in the aftermath of the conflict it came to represent in the psyche of most a reference to presumptions as to the racial order in traditional southern culture.

To deny this would be disingenuous.

After all, the state of Georgia re-introduced the flag after the Brown v Board of Education decision on desegregation. And certain groups which espouse racial supremacy such as the Ku Klux Klan specifically make use of it.

Providing references to General Lee's 1856 letter to the then President Pierce in which he berates the institution of slavery to contrast to those sources confirming President Lincoln's goal of achieving the separation of the black and white races is ultimately not the crux of the matter.

The confederate flag came to be embraced by those in favour of racial separation and by those who practised terror against black American communities. It has become one form of artefact representing the era of ‘Jim Crow’  which succeeded a period of moderate advances made by blacks in the south in the years following the ending of the civil war. 

The protests of those who claim the confederate flag to be an inseparable aspect of southern culture choose to forget that the underlying basis of southern prosperity was the system of enslavement. Indeed, the president of the confederacy, Jefferson Davis in an 1861 speech delivered before his congress acknowledged the indispensability of the labour of African slaves to this prosperity.

The banning of anything in a country such as the United States because of its constitutional emphasis on freedom of expression always presents a huge problem in terms of its justification. Nonetheless, if the confederate flag represents to a significant part of its population the intolerable idea of racial supremacy and oppression of others, the rationale employed by the European Court in banning a coat of arms on the basis of it being “contrary to public policy and to accepted principles of morality” is worthy of consideration.

(C) Adeyinka Makinde (2015)

Adeyinka Makinde is a London-based writer.