As a college educated liberal raised by two liberal midwestern professors, I have a confession to make: I rather like Brad Paisley. His music is twangy and rockabilly and kind of terrible but in an oddly afable way that seems to go well with warm summer nights here in south western Virginia.
But his latest album's big track, "Accidental Racist" is just rage-inducingly awful. Paisley's balad in the key of "whining about being a white guy" tells the tale of him walking into a Starbucks with a Confederate Flag t-shirt and how he's bitter that everyone treats him like a bigot. It also features L.L. Cool J rapping over-top of the latter half of the song in an attempt to validate Paisley's complaint which, while laiden with its own cringe-worthy lyrics and false equivalencies, at least serves to make the track sound a little more like a Confederate apologists' wet dream and a little less like a Klan anthem.
But back to that confederate flag t-shirt.
Paisley's song is very much about judging a book by its cover and his t-shirt is no exception. He insists that he wears it, not out of hate, but because he's "a Skynyrd fan" protesting that he's "caught between southern pride and southern blame." In this at least, he's not alone. Confederate flags are everywhere here in the south and they're certainly a modern day symbol of self-proclaimed southerners though what exactly that means remains a bit unclear.
And that's a problem.
What we think of as the "Confederate Flag" -- those famous crossed "stars and bars" -- isn't the flag of the Confederacy at all. It isn't even the battle flag of the Confederacy (as it is so frequently mis-identified) though it is rather similar. What most southerners call "The Confederate Flag" is actually the battle flag of the army of Tennessee, later appropriated by US military units drawn from southern states during the early part of the second world war.
In other words, what there is to be proud of in southern culture -- the pioneer ethos of rural life, the self-consciously moral Bible belt, and the much romanticized Rebel military figures of R.E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and J.E.B. Stewart -- has never been represented by the flag flown by those who claim to celebrate that culture. Save for those precious few who seek to commemorate the history of the Army of Tennessee, the Confederate Flag's symbolism is more about the attitudes and self-proclaimed ideology of those who've flown it than any imagined history or Confederate identity.
As a result, the Confederate Flag has come to stand for a bitterness over the defeat of the South and, by extension, the end of slavery. It has come to represent Jim Crow segregation, massive resistance, the Klu Klux Klan, the and systematic terrorization, demonization, and victimization of black people. This history makes the flag a tacit threat simultaneously experienced by people of color and invisible to those with white skin. It loudly proclaims, wherever it is flown, even if such is not the intent of its display, "racism is celebrated here."
Indeed that it is acceptable at all to fly a flag with such social and historical baggage is worrisome. While Americans have the right to political speech, even offensive political speech, what one has a right to do and what one ought to do are often very different things. Many Americans today are of German ancestry and while their fathers or grandfathers may have served with distinction in the 7th Panzer Division few would seriously consider plastering a swastika on the back of their Volkswagen in celebration of that service, even if it was entirely beyond reproach.
The Confederate Flag is our country's swastika. It stands for the greatest racial crimes in our nation's history and, perhaps more poignantly it represents the ugly reality that a large portion of our population is not entirely repentant of those crimes.
Brad Paisley may not intend to invoke the symbolism of the litany of racial hatred and oppression that characterized spanned the first four hundred years of this country's history -- some say still spans it -- but that's the trouble with symbols: they belong as much to those that view the as those that show them. Paisley and other southerners may not be "proud... of everything [southerners have] done" but, like it or not, the Confederate Flag stands for most of the terrible things in Southern history and culture and very very few of the good things.
After all, if we take Confederates at their word, the entire war was fought over states rights. General Lee himself went to war, not for the Confederacy as a whole but for his home state of Virginia. If it is the rich culture of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, or even Paisley's home state of West Virginia (which, yes, technically makes him a Yankee) that southerners seek to celebrate there are far more appropriate flags to fly than the stars and bars. They're waving right now, along-side (and slightly below) the American Flag, over every state legislature in the South -- not the stars and bars, just a simple state flag.
When someone chooses to fly the Confederate Flag they are announcing an affinity -- intentional or otherwise -- for a very specific portion of southern history: one of which no American should be proud.