Responding to the anti-shutdown right-wing protest in front of the White House on Sunday (which featured the Confederate flag and a rebel yell), Ta-Nehisi Coates gets at something that has long gnawed at me:
If a patriot can stand in front of the White House brandishing the Confederate flag, then the word “patriot” has no meaning. The Nazi flag is offensive because it is a marker of centuries of bigotry elevated to industrialized murder. But the Confederate flag does not merely carry the stain of slavery, of “useful killing,” but the stain of attempting to end the Union itself. You cannot possibly wave that flag and honestly claim any sincere understanding of your country. It is not possible.
I am a Yankee through and through, born and raised in the liberal hotbed of Madison, Wisconsin, and a denizen of Obama’s Chicagoland. I’m self-aware enough to acknowledge my lack of understanding for the Southern mindset in all things politics and culture. But for the love of Ulysses S. Grant, I refuse to give any credence whatsoever to the belief that wielding the flag of Dixie so loudly and proudly represents a mere appreciation of “heritage” and “freedom” and not what it actually represents: treason.
Let’s not forget: Robert E. Lee and his Confederate military colleagues were traitors. Not grand heroes of a glorious rebellion against the forces of evil, as their past and present acolytes believe, but willing participants in a war against their own country. Lt. Col. Robert Bateman writes in Esquire that Lee, “as a traitor and betrayer of his solemn oath before God and the Constitution, was a much greater terrorist than Osama Bin Ladin… after all, Lee killed many more Americans than Bin Ladin, and almost destroyed the United States.” It’s staggering to see Robert E. Lee, hero of Dixie, compared to Osama bin Laden, chief executive terrorist and national bugbear. As a genteel general Lee wasn’t a terrorist, but on both points Bateman is nevertheless correct: Lee willingly betrayed his solemn oath and went on to kill thousands more Americans than bin Laden ever did.
I think of Robert E. Lee because people today who wave the Confederate flag and tell the president to “put the Quran down” and “figuratively come out with his hands up” are him. They are him for inciting a destructive rebellion (Civil War, meet shutdown) that was 100% caused by their own party. They are him for scorching the earth to grandstand against laws they don’t like. They are not freedom fighters, nor righteous citizens. The Confederate flag stands not for freedom, but for the abuse of it. In their minds they are still Johnny Reb, fighting a battle that is long over yet insisting that his side won and remains the true keeper of the flame of freedom.
The line between protest and rebellion is wide. Crossing that line requires a deliberate jump that most incidents of dissent don’t make (Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning, I think, are included). Properly registering dissent in America is relatively easy. Elections are the clearest means of making one’s voice heard (although apparently these protestors don’t agree with that given their obduracy toward the legally enacted and upheld health-care act). When that doesn’t work, civil disobedience is next (see The Civil Rights movement). But once you make the leap from civil disobedience to contempt for the law, you’re dangerously close to the precipice into which our country fell once before.
The Dixie flag-wavers don’t seem to understand this. They’re off in la-la land where the Confederacy was a great place with “honor” and “heritage” before those damn Yankees ruined everything.
I’ve been to the South. The South has friends of mine. South, you’re no Confederacy. So why do you act like it?