In today’s political environment, there are many reasons a progressive who shares my politics but not my Mississippi heritage might be tempted to set fire to the nearest Confederate flag, as requested by liberal blogger J.C. Christian for what he declared “Burn the Confederate Flag Day” earlier this month. The left’s general affinity for flag-burning aside, the act might also seem like an attractive protest against the perceived racism of the Tea Party or expression of outrage at last weekend’s South Carolina “Southern Experience” party, which featured local politicians dressed as antebellum gentility while black attendees donned the familiar rags worn by sharecroppers and slaves. However, I cannot gather what progress could be made in a public desecration of the Confederate flag, and that any pyro-progressive action would potentially destroying what little sympathy exists in Southern states for leftist legitimacy and ideology.
Before examining the message of such an act, before any claim can be made for the actual message of such an act, we should allow the burning of a community’s symbol serious examination. In their revolt against prejudice and injustice, flag-burning demonstrators have chosen the destruction of a highly contextual and personal symbol to express a far narrower set of complaints — in most cases, allegations of racism. In this, the status of the Confederate flag, as a symbol, requires some attention. I’m guessing that there are many of you who aren’t great fans of the flag’s general display, and here I agree whole-heartedly. Symbols carry collective meaning — this is what distinguishes them from arbitrary decorations — and whether Southerners like it or not, the Rebel flag did once exist (and in many instances, still exists) as a racist icon forged with white supremacist logic. Those who hang this fabric outside their front doors cannot simply will the object to be exempt from this sort of interpretation; it has already been submitted as a racist signal, and while this is by no means its only message, it is equally subjected to its reception as an icon of sexism or white supremacy as it is to more benevolent associations like dignity, heritage and Southern grace.
If symbols carried only their public meanings, I would have little quarrel with the flag-burning (except, perhaps, the popular and flawed logic of Tea Party as a Southern entity). But meaning is never so simple. Confederate symbology in private domains — the den, bedroom, locket, what-have-you — remains integral to many a Southerner’s sense of self and community, and completely devoid of any racist associations. When my younger brother tacks the flag to his bedroom ceiling or my mother hangs it from the shed in the backyard, they should not have to justify their understanding of their personal symbol. Although collective understanding may influence the individual, the ultimate meaning is still a personal decision (they could just as easily let the thing symbolize mashed potatoes). And messy as it is, the flag doesn’t inspire the majority of Southerners with thoughts of potatoes, but it delivers a sense of belonging, religious validation, pride in place and ancestry, which they can easily internalize without presenting the symbol for collective interpretation.
Burning the Confederate flag would be an affront to both meanings. Yes, the burnt flags will appear in the public sphere, but they will inevitably also be understood by thousands of Southerners as a insult to their identity and integrity. Though the burnt flags stand as representations of the glorified Confederate flag (a symbol of a symbol, if you will), the private interpretations cannot be exempt from public displays in the way that public meaning can be divorced from the private.
Though it may be easy to dismiss the objection with “fine and good — let them be offended!” such offense would be incredibly deep, and leave the insulted party distrustful and unsympathetic. For many, the act cannot be understood as a purely political message but instead an attack on their ideals and communities — and they would not be completely in the wrong.
So yes, a conversation about the heart of Tea Party conservatism (not to mention the many accusations of racism) needs to take place. This particular display, however, is not a dialogue, and its target — whether intended or not — isn’t limited to right-wing extremism. The only “progress” I can imagine is a stronger Southern identification with the Tea Partiers and a reactionary distrust of any criticism posed in regards to the party’s principles and motivations.
And the last thing the left needs now is to inflame the South.