I've been thinking about Eric's post since last night. Eric talks persuasively about not letting the furor over the Confederate flag distract us from gun rights. At the same time, the sea change in popular opinion and establishment acceptance of the CSA's battle flag is crucial and a major victory for the United States.
First, if anyone needs an overview on how the Civil War was, in fact, about slavery, go here. For an overview of how the Confederate battle flag became primarily a symbol of segregation and continuing Jim Crow, go here. For commentary on how the historical understanding of the Civil War has changed, go here.
Second, a professional caveat: I am not, primarily, a historian of the United States. I can teach U.S. to and since 1877, and given prep time, a host of other classes on U.S. history, but I'm really a historian of the Americas in global context with a special emphasis on Haiti. My current research involves looking at diversity among people of color in 18th-century Haiti and the ways slavery and other colonial laws shaped family life. However, the history of the Americas involves quite a bit of material on how United Statesians (if you will) understand the U.S.'s origins, history, and purpose, and how this self-understanding affects how they approach the other parts of the Americas. In other words, if the U.S. is awesome, as the thinking goes, then other parts of the Americas must want to be just like it, and therefore don't mind being taken over by the U.S. The definition of "awesome," the willingness of the U.S. to occupy its neighbors, and the awareness of U.S. policymakers of the problematic nature of this thinking vary over the decades. How the U.S. thinks of itself has a direct impact on how it treats other countries (and its own residents).
People often tell me that they love history. I do too! They often say that they're most interested in the history of (in order of likelihood):
1. The Civil War
2. World War Two
3. The American Revolution
4. The 1960s
The American Revolution and the 1960s are distant runners-up to the first two. All four are topics that I did my best to avoid in my undergraduate days of being a history hipster, but all four are really crucial for my work on the Americas in global context for the same reason it's a big Biden deal that the Confederate flag is coming down all over the place:
The Civil War, the Second World War, the American Revolution, and the Consciousness Revolution all cut to the core of the American story, of what it means to be an American. Visualizing the fallen of World War Two reminds us of how many Soviet soldiers gave their lives to defeat Nazi Germany, how crucial the eastern front in Europe was -- a crucial aspect of the war that was difficult for Americans to discuss during the Cold War when "Soviet" = "enemy." The "greatest" generation, the GI Generation, received the GI Bill upon their return and would eventually produce a string* of seven U.S. presidents who emphasized America's (military) strength and engagement in world affairs. The story that the Second World War was a "good" war that fostered modern, democratic governments in Japan and Germany has informed schemes to re-make Korea, Guatemala, Iran, Cuba, Vietnam, Chile, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Grenada, Iraq, and Afghanistan, to name a few. National self-regard is, apparently, a renewable resource.
The stories we tell ourselves, our families, and our friends about who we are and where we came from shape how we see the world. These stories shape how we understand our neighborhoods and communities. Political campaigns succeed when they reduce these stories to their simplest forms: images, and the emotions they invoke. A community baseball game, a windmill reaching into the sky, volunteers working at a soup kitchen, and a series of front porches bedecked with American flags all tell a story about what it means to be "American." President Obama's Selma address is this kind of narrative, albeit in a more inclusive form than we've seen from presidents past.
The Confederate battle flag also offers a narrative, one in three parts: the CSA was built on slave labor and the rights of the Southern states to use centralized government authority to bring back runaway slaves. After the Civil War, historians from the tired, reluctant, and, yes, racist, North colluded with historians from the South to present the Civil War as a tragedy full of heroic deeds by boys in blue and gray, leaving slavery aside. After World War Two, as Northern Democrats, liberal Republicans, and, lest we forget, returning black veterans, made a renewed push against Jim Crow, the flag became a symbol for the segregationists, those who wanted to cling to white supremacy in law and life.
If the Confederate flag remains an honored, celebrated symbol, a part of a "heritage" that is to be remembered, then it continually raises the question: what is to be honored? Slavery? The false idea that the Civil War was one of northern aggression or over states' rights or the tariff? Opposition to civil rights? It must be one of those three, and therefore at least one (if not all three) must be preserved in memory, in an honored, treasured, sacred part of the story we tell ourselves. If the flag remains, it prevents grappling with slavery, with Jim Crow, with white supremacy. If the flag is revered, then these things must be, at least in quiet moments, in hushed conversations, revered.
The Confederate battle flag must be removed from statehouses not because, as some politicians would have it, it's "offensive to some people." It must be removed because secession was the worst kind of treason--a cowardly fleeing of the Union to preserve the oppression of millions. It was revived to continue the oppression of millions. The "Lost Cause" was a cause that was morally lost. Its symbol must go.
Just like the election of President Obama, the removal of the Confederate battle flag won't usher in a post-racial America. We still have key issues with which to grapple: climate change, stark wealth / health / education inequality, and, yes, gun safety, along with many, many other contentious topics as we "perfect our union." But when we're not clinging to this symbol of a hateful heritage like it's a holy relic, we'll be able to better understand our nation's history: where we've been, where we are, and where we're going.
*Those folks who discuss generational theory suggest that President Jimmy Carter (b. 1924) was more a leading-edge member of the Silent Generation than a GI and that difference explains his markedly different approach to foreign affairs.