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Friday, July 3, 2015

The Confederate Flag (The Local Lens, Spirit Newspapers)

As a kid I was a Civil War buff and I loved visiting an old burned out Civil War era chapel near my parents’ house. This old stone chapel was set off by itself in a small clearing in the middle of a forest.
Next to the chapel were two graves. Buried there were two Civil War soldiers, both from the Union army, with their names and dates of birth and death barely distinguishable on the disintegrating grave stones.
These two, long-passed Union soldiers captured my imagination, especially since the area around the chapel was not an official cemetery.
Civil War inspired imagery and pop culture was everywhere in the 1960s. There was even a popular half hour television show called “The Rebel” starring Nick Adams—a friend and alleged lover of actor James Dean. The show centers around a displaced ex-Confederate soldier, Johnny Yuma, who wandered from town to town after the defeat of Robert E. Lee. Displaced Johnny didn’t seem to have a job, possibly because he refused to take off his gray Confederate uniform, which he wore on nearly every show. He would wander into a strange town, find a place to spend the night, adventures ensuing along the way—and with his rebel status, not all of them pleasant.
What made the story of Johnny Yuma so compelling for me was his incessant journal writing. Throughout the drama the viewer saw him sitting under a tree or in a hotel room writing in his journal. At the end of the show he would gather his few personal belongings, hop on his horse and then head out into the wilderness, a lost soul without a home.
The Confederate flag played a big part in “The Rebel.” As a Yankee identifying kid, I had little respect for the Confederate flag. Chester County, where I grew up, was hardly the South; But one you could always find a Confederate flag or two in a few sections of the county—painted on the side of barns or found on pick-up trucks.
The message I gathered was that the lovers of this flag were bitter over the South losing the war. But I found great irony in the fact that the people who brandished the Confederate flag were also the most vehemently patriotic Americans. In the late 60s these same Confederate flag bearers would go on to support the Vietnam War and many of them were adamant followers of the My Country Right or Wrong philosophy. There were bumper stickers then that read: “America: Love it or Leave It.”
Watching the Democratic National Convention on television as a boy I saw scores of Confederate flags on the convention floor.
Growing up, the Confederate flag represented ignorance and a ruinous southern redneck mentality. I didn’t like the flag and I couldn’t understand how it was allowed to fly over various southern state capitol buildings.
But can one loathe the Confederate flag without wishing to ban it from public display
As a kid, I used to canvass the neighborhood with a petition from my parish church which urged the banning of certain movies. These were the days when Catholics had to abide by the Church’s list of condemned movies. Of course it makes no sense why the Church would want everyone in society to abide by its in-house movie decency rules. “The Pawnbroker,” with Gene Hackman, was a big offender in those days because it was the first American mainstream film in which a woman bared her breasts. “The Pawnbroker” was a condemned but I went and saw it anyway.
Books like Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer,” “Candy” by Terry Southern and numerous poems by Allen Ginsberg were also being banned. These were the days when Banned in Boston was known throughout the nation. In the early 1990s, I even got my own taste of censorship when a book I wrote, “The Boy on the Bicycle,” was banned in Ireland.
It is no secret that flags can be strangely multi-symbolic. They can represent different things to different people at different times in history. For the Vietnam War protesters of the 1960s and 70s, the Stars and Stripes stood for genocide, imperialism and napalm; while, to others it stood for freedom, fighting Communism and democracy. Each side had its own definition of the flag’s true symbolic meaning.
When Puritan preachers in New England held bibles high as they hung or burnt witches they saw the bible as a symbol of righteous punishment. There are those who have used scripture to condone the horrors slavery, the subjection the women or the persecution of gay people. But what do we miss when we attribute the source of this hate onto the object itself rather than ourselves?
When certain passages in The Quran lead some in the Muslim world to blow up buildings, does this mean the text itself is evil and should be banned? Or do these actions say more about ourselves than they do about any object.
And what about those who endlessly consume Nietzsche only to  commit suicide because, like Nietzsche, they came to the conclusion that life is meaningless and futile? Should Nietzsche’s writings be banned for the actions they inspire?
Because my mother’s youngest brother, at 18 years of age, was captured, tortured and killed by the Japanese in a South Pacific island during WW II, should I incorporate that tragedy into a hatred of the Japanese flag? Should I avoid Japanese restaurants?
How should we navigate between our actions, our history, the powerful emotional symbolism that we bestow onto objects, our various and diverse stories?
I say, don’t ban the Confederate flag but work to make that flag’s sinister implications (or symbol) archival and irrelevant.
Let’s work to give a new meaning to those crossbars of stars.