The problem with a flag

The complexities of the factors which tend to propel nations into civil war are no less present in the one fought between northern and southern states of 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 civilisation 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 byPresident 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 it.


Victors write history goes the well-worn phrase but the impositions on theSouth 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 for 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 southern prosperity was the system of enslavement. Indeed, the president ofthe confederacy, Jefferson Davis in an 1861 speech delivered before his congress acknowledged the indispensability of the labour of African slave 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 aspect of southern culture choose to forget that the underlying basis of it being “contrary to public policy and to accepted principles of morality” is worthy of consideration.

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