The Confederate Flag: America’s Most Loaded Generic Symbol of Rebellion

Privleged, white, rebels without a clue in Colorado.

Rebels without a clue in Colorado.

The Confederate flag is an American symbol like no other. The reasons for this aren’t complicated: the Rebel flag is both distinctly American and functionally anti-American at the same time. It’s American in the sense that it once stood for a rebellion started by Americans, but anti-American in the sense that those American rebels waged a treasonous war against, you know, the United States. Yes-sir-ee-Bob, the stars and bars represents the most chaotic moment in U.S. history, when the land of the free went to war over the fact that millions of its residents were decidedly unfree, and plenty of (white) Americans wanted to maintain that status quo.

Historically, the Confederate battle flag represents the attempt in 1861 by the majority of the southern states to establish an independent, slaveholding republic: the Confederate States of America. This was during an era when emancipation was kind of a trendy thing, but leave it to some entrepreneurial Americans to buck feel-good, humanitarian fads when their pocketbooks, their cotton crops, and their entire social order was at stake.

As the old notion goes, the Confederacy lost the Civil War, but its underlying ideology of white supremacy won the peace for a long period afterwards — in some respects even up to the present day (cough *Ferguson* cough *Baltimore*). This is why the Confederate flag, as much as it remains a symbol of rebellion and slavery, is still very much an American symbol that will always be pretty damn controversial — as it should be. By the nineteenth century, slavery was an exclusively southern thing, but white supremacy was — and is — an American thing (if you’re white and you don’t believe this, then you’re wrong and in need of a good ole’ fashioned caning). This is the hard truth that we have to wrestle with whenever we discuss what it means to fly the Rebel flag in twenty-first century America.

Perhaps this historical reckoning is a bit much for today’s youngins to handle, but Heavens to Betsy, it really shouldn’t be. Case in point: recently, a group of teenage John Hughes-movie knockoffs in Colorado decided that it would be an awesome idea to like, OMG, totally have their prom pictures taken while holding big guns and an even bigger Confederate flag! In a related instance, a couple of North Carolina students had a pic taken of themselves waving the Rebel flag on a class field trip to Gettysburg National Military Park (talk about siding with the losers). Both instances made local newscasts and caused some internet controversy.

Over at Civil War Memory, Kevin Levin discusses why flying the stars and bars without any historical context in both of these instances is deeply problematic. But there’s something else going on when America’s alabaster progeny decide to take up the Confederate banner seemingly without much appreciation for what that banner stands for. Teenagers have always fancied themselves as rebels. And when it comes to proving your rebel bona-fides while posing in tacky rented gowns and trying to show the football team that you’re totally badass because you’re shouldering a needlessly large-scale firearm, few symbols are more effective than the Confederate flag.

These North Carolina students likely weren't thinking much about the historival implications of flying the Confederate flag at Gettysburg -- and that's the problem.

These North Carolina students likely weren’t thinking much about the historical implications of flying the Confederate flag at Gettysburg — and that’s the problem.

I’ve already written about the history behind the Confederate flag in the post “Why you Can’t Separate the Confederate Flag from its History,” and I’ve detailed the underlying white supremacy that was at the heart of the Southern rebellion in “The Confederacy, Slavery, and the Fog of Historical Memory,” so I’m not gonna rehash much of those points here. But there’s another aspect to the Confederate flag that should be noted: how it became a very loaded, but nonetheless generic, symbol of rebellion that still appeals to America’s impressionable teenage moppets.

By the late 1870s, the American public had grown tired of the chaos of Reconstruction, what with all of its political discord and Klan-led racial terrorism. Thus, in an attempt to finally heal long-festering wounds, white Americans North and South adopted a reconciliationist stance on the Civil War that de-emphasized the central roles that slavery and racism played in the conflict. In the place of slavery, whites constructed a collective memory of the war as an unfortunate spat between two groups of noble Caucasians — a version of the still-popular, overly sentimental schlockfest known as the “brother-against-brother” trope. By removing black Americans from the memory of the war, whites downplayed the very raw, and very real racial conflict that sparked the violence but didn’t die out when Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomatox. By culturally amputating the Civil War’s beating ideological heart of slavery from the collective national memory, post-war whites normalized “whiteness” as the default national identity. They also stripped the Confederacy — and, by extension, its battle flag — of its core political meanings, at least in the popular consciousness.

Enter American capitalism. In the many decades after the post-war reconciliationists stripped the Confederate flag of its real meaning, marketing geniuses like North Carolina’s Dixie Outfitters filled that void by mass-producing the battle flag as a catch-all emblem of “rebellion.” They at least have some keen business sense, because millions of Americans have been willing to hand over plenty of dead presidents (including, ironically, President Lincolns) to purchase a little bit of Rebel glory. And isn’t that just so damn American? Before we even knew what we had, we patented the Confederate flag, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now we’re selling it, we wanna sell it!!!

For many Americans, including the teens in the previously mentioned pictures, the Rebel flag is just that: a rebel flag, a form of generic, only vaguely historical, commodified rebellion. Heck, a mother of one of the Colorado students observed about the kids displaying the Confederate flag: “I think in their immaturity they kind of think it is a cowboy thing.” Ya see? What’s more of an American rebel than a cowboy?! In many cases, kids like this are as likely to think about the flag’s historical connotations as the Cleveland Indians are to win the World Series. The same goes for much of the general public.

Y'know why this guy's more of a rebel than you? Because he voted for the other major American political party. Boo-Yah!!

Y’know why this guy’s more of a rebel than you? Because he voted for the other major American political party. Boo-Yah!!

Of course, there’s always been a small subculture of Confederate “Heritage” bozos who actively deny the Rebel flag’s deep connections to slavery and white supremacy because they’d like to think that great, great, great Uncle Bocephus donned his butternut duds to fight for something a bit more noble than keepin’ the darkies in their place. Aren’t they precious…

But beyond the Neo-Confederates, a good chunk of the American public simply doesn’t attach much political or historical meaning to the Confederate flag. To them, the flag just stands for “rebellion,” and even though most contemporary Americans have never rebelled against anything beyond leaving nasty Yelp reviews about their local Golden Corral buffet, they nonetheless like to think that they’re rebels because, you know, freedom and such. Thus, waving a Confederate flag, or plastering the stars and bars on the bumper of their 1987 Ford Pinto allows some people to feel like rebels in the generic sense without actually having to rebel against something. This says a lot about how American history is filtered through the national consciousness, and it says even more about some Americans’ willingness to plaster over their tragic racial past by making the Confederate flag into little more than a questionable fashion statement or a lame prom photo prop.

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35 Comments

  1. I think the saddest part are the African Americans who make themselves seen with the flag. If any group of people should recognize the historical/political significance…

    • Just because you’re a particular color, doesn’t mean you’re educated about the Civil War and what the Confederacy stood for. And it’s likely that this person you’re referring to is H.K. Edgerton: a guy who is either completely nuts, very ill-informed, or just in it for the cash that these goofball Heritage groups offer to him.

  2. Those purveyors of Confederate wears were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.

  3. To view the Confederacy as “a symbol against tyranny,” you’d have to be astonishingly ignorant of anything that it actually DID during the Civil War.

  4. Ruminsky, scrolling through your blog is like walking through some bizarre, alien landscape. There’s stuff here that looks impossible to wrap a level head around…

    I note in passing that individualism is no more cultish than leftist groupism…. in fact, probably less so.

    Slavery was an exclusively Southern thing? Well, golly geepers, sho nuff, IF you don’t count its inextricable role in contributing to the wealth of the slave-less northeast… (Actually, the South was just where the slaves were domiciled, but institutional slavery’s economic and social soaker hoses and sprinkler systems reached across the country, keeping it all … green. And white.)

    White supremacy is merely one flavor of tribal supremacy (you ought to really identify with this; it’s the original group-think), and tribal supremacy only problematic when it’s the white tribe being, well, white and tribal, because white contributions to the world have been numerous and superior (western civilization, for example), and people, bless their hearts, are apt to confuse superior contributions with racial supremacy (especially when the confusion encouraged by people who dislike or are jealous of those contributions and the tribe making them).

    Kevin Levin, btw, is deeply problematic.

    Despite my profound affinity for, and attachment to, my homeland — the South — and its culture, and my belief in and support for secession (anywhere that it’s needed, not just in Dixie), I still have more affection and respect for the good ol’ US of A than many leftist critics who have been trying for so long to tear it down, especially since WWII, and have been making alarming headway in the Obama era.

    BTW, it isn’t totally Mr. Lang’s fault that he can’t pay his medical expenses himself. When a bag of saline water for an IV costs $120, it’s evidence that the whole medical establishment (doctors/hospitals/suppliers, insurance companies, the feds) are conspiring, and have been for a long time, to take his responsibility for himself away from him.

    See, certain folks in this country don’t want to be responsible for themselves, but relying on the government has (or has had) a stigma attached, so the idea now is to force everyone to rely on the government (by making everything, but especially health insurance and medical care, unaffordable without government “help”); and when all share the same stigma, there is no stigma — just as when all are special or exceptional, there’s no longer any such thing as special or exceptional, and Bob’s your uncle.

    Maybe someday you will consider doing a blog post about why leftists such ardent, nay obsessive, devotees of dependency…. or is it simply hostility to personal responsibility?

    (P.S. and BTW, no posts about the departure of Mad Men from the vast wasteland? Here are a couple of things that you might find good starting points — http://www.vdare.com/posts/matthew-weiner-explains-mad-men-is-about-white-power …and… http://www.unz.com/isteve/matthew-weiner-on-how-mad-men-is-driven-by-his-resentment-of-wasp-country-clubs/ Enjoy! )

      • You can start by going through her victim mentality.

        If she can handle actually learning something she can read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. Since that would be too difficult for her to do, she can go here http://www.pbs.org/gunsgermssteel/index.html . She can also watch the three episodes here on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QwZ4s8Fsv94&list=PLhzqSO983AmHwWvGwccC46gs0SNObwnZX

        She would learn exactly why “white” civilization was able to use its resources to gain ascendency over much of the world. It has nothing to do with the color of someone’s skin and everything to do with geography.

        • I’m not sure I buy the whole “white civilization” is supreme thing. I mean, white folks started World Wars I and II, which amounted to the most cataclysmic destruction of human life in all of history. So, yeah, we whities ain’t perfect.

  5. Mr. Dick, “victim mentality” — term used to justify disregarding the complaints of those who have legitimate gripes.

    It doesn’t matter WHY the white tribe was so successful; only that it was successful. The issue has been related to skin color by critics of the white tribe as much as by cheerleaders of the white tribe.

    Mr. Ruminski, I didn’t say whites were perfect, or even supreme — only that their accomplishments were superior (in both number and quality). And actually, I believe communism in the 20th century resulted in the greatest destruction of human life. Not always by cataclysms such as war, but no less horrendous.

    WWI — 37 million casualties, military and civilian
    WWII — 60 milllion deaths, military and civilian
    http://apworldhistory2012-2013.weebly.com/wwi-vs-wwii.html

    Soviet communism — 70 million, murdered by government
    Chinese communism — 77 million, murdered by government
    (and these don’t include other murderous regimes, not all of them white)
    https://www.hawaii.edu/powerkills/NOTE1.HTM

    But what we’re measuring, however approximately, is not destructiveness but positive achievement, although it just stands to reason that the originator of superior accomplishment can channel it into both good and bad. On the positive side, Western civilization, which is (primarily but not solely) a product of the white tribe, put a man on the moon. It wiped out some of the worst diseases in the history of man. Western civilization has led the way in exploration, discovery, development.

    Whose medical achievements have been taken to western Africa to deal with the current ebola epidemic (and who took them there)? By contrast, whose medical achievements were used in the 1950s USA to deal with the polio epidemic? Well, there is no contrast, because polio was eradicated by the same medical achievements and the same people (of earlier generations).

    You’re a historian. Why don’t you quantify the positive accomplishments of the tribes of mankind and see which, if any, are the most and best?

    • How do you expect to quantify anything without understanding why one race or region came to dominate others? Do you even have a clue why we have Western Civilization in the first place?

      Communism is a product of Western Civilization so when you list the deaths it caused you can point right to Western Civilization and lay them at its feet.

      What conditions had to exist for any race of man to extract and work iron ore? What enabled some men to literally use time to think instead of producing food? What conditions had to exist for mankind to expand beyond small villages into kingdoms and empires? What advantages did inhabitants of Eurasia have that Sub-Saharan Africans, Polynesians, Australian aborigines, and Native Americans on two continents did not have?

      When you understand those advantages you see why the axises of two great civilizations arose where they did, and have lasted for so long.

      As for victim mentality, you do not have a legitimate gripe.

    • The fact that you don’t read what he wrote. If you did you would actually learn something. Your racist fantasies have been rejected by people with intelligence. Yet, you made those claims which have nothing to support them.
      If you want to make a claim, back it up with facts. Otherwise you are just running your mouth. Disprove Diamond’s work…but to do that you would have to read it.

  6. Mr. Ruminski, my use of the word “tribe” was in reference to those who use “tribalism” to mean race, usually in response to a comment by someone who believes differently than they do about race. I just think it’s interesting that sometimes the concept of a group (tribe, race, culture) is bad and a no-no, and sometimes it is good, as in groups that comprise multiculturalism and diversity.

    Mr. Dick, what statements of mine prove otherwise?

    Am I supposed to believe nobody understood the “why” of the rise of western civilization before 1997 when Mr. Diamond’s book was published?

  7. Pretty much all of them. People were making some good studies of what was going on. Unfortunately, some here in the US got this idea that skin color had something to do with western civilization being superior. Most people disagreed with them, but their ideas are still around. Diamond’s research positively crushed the idea of race as a determining factor.

    Read the book.

  8. I don’t have or display a victim mentality, and your “Pretty much all of them” is an evasion — and once again you have made a statement you can’t prove, though it should be easy to. I understand your aversion to choosing a statement and holding it up as an example of my “victim mentality” because I’ll tear it apart. But until you do, you’ve made a charge you’re unwilling to substantiate.

    Again.

    And in front of all your peers who visit here.

    • “Mr. Dick, it is not a “victim mentality” to acknowledge the war on Confederate heritage that has been taking place since the middle or latter part of the 20th century. It’s not an “us against the world” mindset — only us against those warring against our heritage. We don’t ignore reality. I’d say that you ignore huge chunks of reality that lie outside your all-slavery, only-slavery mindset.” Taken from your own comments on Crossroads.

      Let’s get something straight right now. The Civil War was caused by slavery. The South as a united group did not exist any more than it does now. Fully a third of the men in the southern states rejected secession and supported the Union during the war. You do not have a heritage built on facts. You have the lost cause myth. It has been completely repudiated by the facts and you do not like that so there is your victim mentality.

      Your “heritage” is not under attack. Just the lies that prop up the moronic bullshit that is the lost cause. If you want to defend lies by saying your heritage is under attack, then you are an idiot.

      As for my peers, they laugh at you. You can try to run your mouth on your blog and then delete the comments like you do all the time, but you’ve been caught doing it too many times. Brooks ripped you a new asshole along with most of the other bloggers. You are nothing but entertainment for Brooks to use on slow days.

  9. From what I’ve read about Diamond’s book (reviews on Amazon and on various blogs — not Confederate heritage blogs), there’s plenty of room for criticism and questioning of his conclusions. And I thoroughly reject the notion that until he published this book, nobody understood the ascendancy of western civilization. From what I can tell just from discussions like this, it appears that his book is welcomed by folks such as yourself because it takes a post-civil-rights, politically correct view of race.

    • Here we have an example of research by Connie Chastain. “From what I’ve read about Diamond’s book (reviews on Amazon and on various blogs — not Confederate heritage blogs), there’s plenty of room for criticism and questioning of his conclusions.” She reads the comments on Amazon to learn from. Why is that? Too lazy to read a book…or too skeered?

    • As for western civilization, you may have a racist viewpoint of it which was probably taught to you by other white supremacists who opposed civil rights in America, but predating Diamond were a lot of other historians. The historians who put together the Time-Life series in the 1960s were not racists making the claim that whites were superior because of their race. They and others placed western civilization as part of a multi racial theme because it comes from the Middle East.

      Many non-historians wanted to claim a racial reason for this because it gave them a rationale to defend colonialism which was a major set back for emerging African nations. The concept of superior races was being rejected a long time ago. The Agricultural Revolution was seen to be part of why Western Civilization expanded like it did as well as geographic boundaries, but Diamond expanded upon this and realized that Geography had practically everything to do with why Western Europe became dominant after 1500 AD.

      Here’s the thing you and others miss. There is no guarantee that western civilization will be the main civilization. In fact, as we see the effects of globalization, it is more and more probable that a global civilization will replace it, but pieces of it and other civilizations will be what forms that global civilization. That is the nature order of things, not that of one race dominating the others.

  10. There’s nothing wrong with getting other people’s views on the book… that’s what Amazon’s reviews are for. You just spent words and words giving your view of it. I don’t think yours is the only view that should count in my decision whether to buy and read it. (BTW, the Internet is how we do things in the 21st century — how we communicate, how we teach, how we learn. You have a website don’t you?” Mr. Ruminski… Levin, Simpson, all educators with blogs… You yourself have stuff online, correct?).

    Too lazy or skeered? Nope, too broke, right now. Kindle version is under $10, so I’ll consider that. But you still haven’t convinced me that Diamond’s book is the be-all and end-all you seem to think, or that I should spend my $10 on him instead of somebody else. If you’re presenting it accurately, his explanation sounds way too simplistic…

    One blog I read about Diamond examines his self-contradiction. It says: “The Jared Diamond of Guns, Germs, and Steel has almost no role for human agency–the ability people have to make decisions and influence outcomes. Europeans become inadvertent, accidental conquerors. Natives succumb passively to their fate. But in 2005 out comes another book from Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Suddenly choice and agency are back!”

    This article, BTW, is quite interesting, and it would have a lot more to do with my choosing to read Guns, Germs and Steel (should I decide to do so) than your comments:
    http://www.livinganthropologically.com/anthropology/guns-germs-and-steel/

    I haven’t taken courses in western civilization. I’ve observed and learned from numerous sources, starting in elementary school.

    BTW, I have one volume of the Time-Life series titled “The Old South.” It is subjective and opinionated and it heralds the coming of political correctness two or three decades later.

    The effects of globalization — war, poverty, gradual third world status for previously prosperous countries, generalized, worldwide misery except for an elite few. Competition and conflict, not cooperation, are the natural order at the societal level. Without civilizational hierarchy, there will be no superior civilization to help the less fortunate ones. We’ll all be one big, miserable planet.

    • Why would we be miserable? People get to make choices in democratic societies. One can vote for a party that is opposed to minimum wage increases, progressive taxation, a leveled playing field for business, social programs for people and not corporations, and the general welfare of people over profits OR one can vote for a party that puts people over profits, seeks minimum wage increases, seeks a level playing field for business, wants to maintain a social safety net including Social Security, the ACA, Medicare, Medicaid and other programs, and is an advocate of progressive taxation in order to prevent the elites from controlling the wealth produced by people.

      You are subscribing to social darwinism. That can only happen if people allow it.

      As for the Internet, it’s a great place. It has all kinds of information on it as well as all kinds of trash. Sorting it out is an important concern that I have to teach students about as they seek information on it. Some blogs are written by people who have educations and use facts when developing their interpretations. They have degrees and have reached the point in their education where they are the ones who develop lessons and educate others.

      Then we have those who state their opinions while rejecting facts. When confronted with sources they still reject those facts and cling to their discredited beliefs. That would be the lost cause crowd.

      The choice to learn is yours. You can take the red pill of ignorance or the blue pill of knowledge.

      Watch the Diamond videos. I show them in my Geography class.

  11. Global civilization, should it occur, won’t be a big version of the United States. 7+ billion people aren’t all gonna hold hands and sing Kumbaya and buy the world a Coke and vote for progressive taxation and a higher minimum wage. It will take the most tyrannical, bloody, brutal dictatorship in the history of mankind to make it work. The bad old days of progressive and backward cultures will look like paradise by comparison.

    And it won’t work; not for long. Sooner or later, people under that kind of brutal repression reach a point where they have nothing left to lose and they fight back. This would be especially true if the whole planet is under domination, and there are no free places to escape to.

    A degree is not proof educational attainment, or of the possession of knowledge or wisdom. It is possible to be self-educated and be a better teacher than somebody with advanced degrees.

    The educational establishment today is about indoctrination. It has an agenda that is not about educating students. Education, especially higher education, used to be about free thought and free speech, about teaching people how to think and learn for themselves. Today, in the era of speech codes and “trigger word warnings,” it’s about telling people what to think. It also seems that the teaching profession increasingly attracts those who want to tell others what to think.

    Disagreement with you — seeing things differently than you — is not ignorance, as much as you might like to see it that way.

    I would just say, the “lost cause crowd” thinks the same thing about you and your educational establishment. Regardless of what you say, you pick and choose what you accept and reject based not on whether it’s true or factual, but whether it is racially sensitive or caters to currently popular racial interpretations.

    • You have opinions and I have facts. Not my fault you reject facts in favor of fiction. Enjoy the red pill of ignorance.

      • Let me add to that, Connie. What I find with the people who whine about higher education is that they don’t hear what they want from professors. That is not what higher ed is about. It is about teaching with facts whether you like them or not. You can bitch about that all day long, but the bottom line is you reject the facts and choose to hear lies. Then you complain about higher ed.

        Sorry, I’m not going to lie to you so you can feel good about yourself. I’m going to tell you the truth. If you get butt hurt over it, tough. The world moved past you and you just can’t stand it. The world isn’t the way you want it to be because we’ve rejected your version. It wasn’t based on facts and its history was total fiction.

        You made your own hell. Enjoy it.

  12. Hell? LOL! What have you been smoking?

    Did you go to one of the Memorial Day Confederate flag burnings? Be careful, synthetic fabrics can give off toxic fumes when they’re on fire. You’re certainly the one who sounds distressed, not I.

    You don’t deal in facts. You deal in politically correct fantasy — such as, everyone who waves a Confederate flag is an evil white supremacist. You have drunk deeply of the leftist koolaid. Virtually everything is about race to you, and what ain’t about race is about sexism/gender/orientation. (And that’s not true, either.)

    That little side trip is several decades old and about to run it’s course. Longsuffering people who put up with the tantrums have about reached their limit. You and Mr. Ruminski have a dwindling audience except for the captives in your classrooms… (presuming Mr. Ruminski resumes teaching). It’s too late to save the country, so everybody loses but it’s almost worth it to see the leftist culture-changers in defeat.

    • Once again, Connie Chastain shows us she is incapable of learning because she chooses to be ignorant. When challenged with learning she flees like a cockroach when the lights come on. Given the opportunity to learn by watching Diamond’s videos she flees. Given the opportunity to learn from Eric Foner’s free classes she flees.

      I love it that you say I don’t deal in facts. It is hilarious. Coming from a woman who refuses to learn and who rejects facts, that is just complete and utter ignorance.

      “It’s too late to save the country” is just another example of your victim mentality. Go crawl back to your blog of backassed stupidity and your “heavy hitting” for the flaggers of futility. Together you have accomplished absolutely nothing except to give us all good laughs.

      Goodbye, Connie. You had a chance to learn and instead you took the red pill of ignorance. You are one of the many poster children for why the lost cause is disappearing.

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