The Confederacy, Racism and the Legacy of a Flag

confederate_flagDoes the Confederate Flag represent racism?  Are we denying a part of our country the opportunity to celebrate their heritage by removing the Confederate Flag from public buildings?  Are we making too much of this whole debate?

To answer that question, we need to first clarify two things: 1.) Why was the Civil War actually fought?, and 2.) What are the roots and meaning of the Confederate Flag?

Why was the US Civil War actually fought?

There’s a natural tendency to view history in a way that makes us feel better about the truth.  The truth is that the Civil War was fought over slavery.  Any other explanation is revisionist at best, and plain lies at worst.  There is a strong tendency to say that the Civil War was fought over “states’ rights”, which is only true in that the right the states were fighting over was the right to have slaves.  (Mississippi’s Declaration of Secession is a clear example of the true cause of the Civil War.)

That’s not to say that the fight over slavery was as simple as we’d like to believe.  There wasn’t a line in the sand where everyone north of the line believed slavery had to be abolished and everyone south of the line wanted to keep it.  In fact, the South seceded not because slavery was going to be abolished (there were no immediate, active federal plans to do so), but because the expansion of slavery into new territories was at stake.  There were plenty of people in the northern states who would have been perfectly okay with the continued existence of slavery, and even many who were okay with its expansion into new territories.  There were plenty of individuals in the South who were morally opposed to slavery and would have preferred to see it abolished.

Even at the start of the Civil War, President Lincoln, while morally opposed to slavery, was not actively planning for emancipation of slaves in the existing slave holding states.  That decision came later, and the timing of the decision was made in part because of a need for increased troops to fight the war.

It’s also important to note that the end of the war and the treatment of the Confederate army after the war was, and this is an understatement, unusual.  Pardons and immunity from prosecution for treason was offered to virtually all Confederate soldiers.  President Lincoln initiated the lenient view, while President Johnson took that amnesty even further.  Eventually even Jefferson Davis, who served as president of the seceded Confederate States, was pardoned.

That lenient view has led to 150+ years of a confusing Confederate legacy.  Public monuments have been built to honor Confederate leaders.  Streets, parks and buildings are named in honor of Confederate generals.  We’ve created an environment that permits-even encourages-pride in the Confederate cause.

What are the roots and meaning of the Confederate Flag?

The Confederate Flag as we know it today was a battle flag, originally flown at the Battle of Bull Run by Confederate General Beauregard’s troops.  After the Civil War, it saw limited use in the South, often flown at events memorializing fallen Confederate soldiers.  Small controversies over the flag arose throughout the 19th century over whether captured battle flags should be returned to the South by the federal government (virtually unprecedented in any other civil war throughout global history).

It wasn’t until the 1948 presidential campaign of Senator Strom Thurmond that the Confederate Flag began to be universally recognized as a symbol of segregation and racism.  Senator Thurmond ran on a segregationist platform, and used the flag as a symbol of that campaign.

In the 1960’s the flag was raised above the South Carolina Statehouse, ostensibly in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Civil War.  However, at the same time, South Carolina lawmakers were resisting the adoption of Civil Rights measures – and the flag remained over the Statehouse as a symbol of the protest against Civil Rights.

(AP Photo/Eric Draper)

(AP Photo/Eric Draper)

So is the Confederate Flag the problem?

Flags are symbols that are given meaning by the people who adopt them.  Is the flag the problem?  No.  But the problem is what the flag has been used to represent – and to allow the flag to continue to fly over the state capital building in South Carolina IS a problem.  (South Carolina has voted to remove the flag, and their debate to do so highlighted many of these points.)

If we look to recent history, allowing the flag to remain on the capital building is problematic because it was left there in the 1960’s to represent a protest against Civil Rights.  If we take a longer view of history and go back to the original meaning of the flag, allowing a flag that represents secession and treason to fly over a state capital is misguided at best.

I am not advocating that we should ban the Confederate Flag.  It certainly should exist in museums and should be understood in the context of history – the good, the bad and the ugly.  (Although let’s agree that most of its history is bad and ugly.)  I believe that you should be allowed to wear a t-shirt with the Confederate Flag, fly it on the back of your pick-up truck and put it out on your front lawn; because I believe in your 1st Amendment Right to free speech.  (I have a right to assume that by flying the Confederate Flag, you are either racist or uneducated.)  I think every retail store has a right to decide for themselves whether they choose to sell Confederate Flag merchandise, just like I have a right to decide whether or not I choose to shop at those establishments.

So many sources…
I’ve waited to wade into the debate on the Confederate Flag until I had an opportunity to do some research.  I have, like everyone else, immediate, visceral reactions to current events – but before it hits my blog, I’ve vetted those reactions through more than one source of information.  There are a lot of sources for me to mention, and I’m sure I’ll miss some.  This list includes only the online sources, and not the books I’ve read over the last year:

Addressing the subject of gun control is kind of like lighting a match next to a gas tank.

GuncontrolI’m starting this off with full disclosure: I hate guns.  The idea of being around guns scares the hell out of me.  I don’t want them in my house.  I’m aware that my personal feelings about guns significantly impact my feelings on gun control.  However, I also believe that I’m a rational, intelligent human being who can form opinions based on things other than personal emotion.

Addressing the subject of gun control is kind of like lighting a match next to a gas tank.  Everyone is going to gasp and hide, because one tiny mistake and I could cause an explosion.  It’s just asking for trouble.  For the record, it’s not my intention to cause that explosion – and I’m going to be as careful as I can to stick to facts.

A Nation of Gun Owners

I have always felt strongly that our nation is far too obsessed with firearms.  It’s not hard to understand why, with our relatively recent history of being intruders in a less than friendly land.  Just a couple of hundred years ago in most of the country, it was not just accepted but necessary to own a gun for protection from wildlife and, sadly, the native population that we displaced or the neighbors who might attempt to claim your land.

And of course, we are still a nation of active hunters.  7% of our US population hunts, with 12.5 million people over the age of 16 hunting annually.  (Statistics as of 3/30/2012 from Hunting Business Marketing)  Frankly, I found it close to impossible to find statistics on hunting in any other country – not because there aren’t hunters across the world but because it isn’t quite the same industry that it is in the US.

To some extent, I can understand and accept that we are a nation of gun owners.  It’s not a part of American culture that I’m proud of, but I can accept it.

But how many guns are too many?

The United States has – by a large margin – more guns per capita than any other country in the world.  Notice I didn’t say any other “developed” country.  Any. Other. Country.  Yemen is number 2.  (Data is from the Small Arms Surveyas summarized by The Guardian following the Aurora massacre.)

In the US there are roughly 9 guns for every 10 people.  I had to re-read that statistic several times over.  9 guns for every 10 people.

Violence versus Gun Violence

In my research for this blog post, I came across a really interesting quote/statistic that summarizes why I feel that gun control is so vital:

The U.S. is not a uniquely violent society, said Wintemute, who practices emergency medicine and conducts research on the nature and prevention of gun violence. Our overall rates of violence are similar to Australia, Canada and Western Europe. Where the U.S. stands out, Wintemute said, is in the homicide rate.

“That’s a weapon effect. It’s not clear that guns cause violence, but it’s absolutely clear that they change the outcome,” said Wintemute.

– Dr. Garen Wintemute, of the University of California, Davis, Medical Center, from the Huffington Post

Gun Safety

I nostalgically remember a time when the most hotly debated issue around gun control stemmed from gun owners who were careless with the storage and safety of their guns, causing accidental death to children in the home.  That’s still a huge issue, but it almost seems quaint.  But since I’m going to try to address as many solutions as I can before my fingers get tired from typing:

(1)  Required Gun Safety Course:  Can we all just agree that every single gun owner should be required to take some level of gun safety course?  (This is already required in most states.)

(2)  Renewed Gun Safety Courses:  I suggest that we also institute a requirement that in order for your ownership of your guns to be legal, you renew your gun safety courses regularly and at your own cost.  (I’d like to suggest annually, but I can see where every 5 or maybe even 10 years might be more reasonable.)

(3)  Gun Safety Course relevant to the type of gun you own: I would also recommend that we don’t have a single type of gun safety course, but one that is specialized to the type of guns that you own.  Hunting rifles and handguns require a different type of knowledge.

Waiting Period and Background Checks

Many states have no waiting period to own a gun.  (Pennsylvania has a 48-hour waiting period.)  In researching this topic, there are a number of articles and blogs arguing against the efficacy of a waiting period – specifically pointing out that background checks can be done almost instantaneously and that any argument about a person having time to cool off before doing something crazy is illogical.

This specific post talks about the other ways a hot-headed murderer might strike.  True, but a.) most individuals have no idea how to purchase a gun off the black market, and b.) murder by firearm is far more likely than any other method that requires far more planning and physical strength.

This gentleman also refers to individuals who feel that they need protection immediately and that the waiting period prevents that.  I sympathize, but strongly believe that anyone who rushes into a gun purchase is not likely to be thinking clearly about safety or consequences, and more likely to do something he/she will regret.  (I’ll happily debate domestic violence prevention at another time.)

(4)  Waiting Period: I think a waiting period is critical, and that during that waiting period a prospective gun owner should be instructed to confirm in writing that he/she has completed training, has a proper and safe storage unit and is prepared for gun ownership.

(5)  Complete Background Check plus Substance Abuse considerations:  I think a complete background check (at the expense of the gun owner) is also critical.  For a first time gun purchase, I think something beyond a simple on-line criminal check is necessary.  I believe that other factors – including history of substance abuse – should be taken into consideration.  Subsequent gun purchases may require less stringent checks.

Gun Registration

I was actually pretty horrified to learn how rarely guns in the United States are actually registered and tracked to the owner.  There are arguments that the government could use that registration to track gun owners and prevent “resistance”.  That argument just blows my mind, frankly, so I can’t really respond to it.

Registration of guns – and requiring re-registration in the event that ownership is transferred – is not going to hurt lawful gun owners.  What is going to do, however, is to require that they take responsibility for the location and safety of the weapon.  If it is stolen, they are then responsible for reporting it immediately or accepting consequences when it is used to commit a crime.

(6)  Register every gun: I think every gun in the country should be required to be registered to the owner, with current address, photo and gun safety training history.

(7)  Re-register for any transfer in ownership: In the event that the gun ownership is transferred, the registration should be updated.  (We have to do this for our cars!  How can we possibly not be required to do this for our deadliest weapons?)

Assault Weapons and High Capacity Magazines

I don’t really know that much about guns, so for me to try to define what should constitute an assault weapon would be silly.  There is, apparently, some debate about specific definitions.

Shouldn’t we be able to agree that any weapon that is designed to release a high volume of bullets very quickly and with little effort should be banned from private ownership?  If you feel as though you require this weapon for protection, you need to move.  I realize that is ridiculously reductive, but I struggle to think of a single positive thing that can come out of private citizens owning automatic or semi-automatic weapons.  The same is true of high capacity magazines.

(8)  Ban Assault Weapons: I strongly and passionately believe that assault weapons should be banned from private ownership, without exception for weapons that are already privately owned.  At the same time, I realize that literally taking someone’s gun will cause absolute chaos and undoubtedly cause violence, so I’ll compromise on ending the private sale of these weapons.  Law enforcement agencies and the military should be the owner legal purchasers.

(9)  Ban High Capacity Magazines: High capacity magazines should also be banned from private sale.

I know this won’t end gun violence

There isn’t a simple answer to ending gun violence.  Some gun owners will react to say that the steps above will only restrict guns from law-abiding citizens and not keep guns out the hands of criminals.  The problem with that line of thought is that a.) the more guns that are in circulation, the more likely that those guns fall into the hands of criminals – even if unintentionally, and b.) law abiding citizens turn into criminals because they experience terrible circumstances and make horrific decisions.  Gun control laws make it more difficult for someone to make an atrocious decision in the heat of the moment.  I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t own a gun.  (I would if you asked me personally, but I’m not doing so right now.)  I’m suggesting that if you are, in fact, buying a gun with the right intentions around safety and usage, you won’t mind waiting, having a background check, or registering your weapon.

There are, of course, other factors that have led to recent massacres in Aurora and Newtown.  Violence in video games and entertainment.  The fear culture that is created by the media.  Mental illness is a topic that needs to be addressed.  (This is a blog post for another time.  I’m not suggesting that mental illness automatically makes someone more violent.  My own anxiety is a mental illness and I’m the least violence person I know.  But anyone who can commit atrocities like Newtown IS mentally unstable and we need to talk about how to diagnose and treat illness before it becomes deadly.)

I think this is the time to stop allowing the NRA and the gun manufacturers to lead the public debate.  I hope that we can all stop and think logically, sensibly about the changes that we need to see.

Noisy, messy and complicated: What’s next?

I was serious about being committed to continuing the conversation around the issues.  There’s a lot of anger right now.  I can only hope that we can channel that passion into something more productive than anger.