By JOHN McCARTHY/Virgin Islands Free Press
One of the things to come out of the debate over what is wrong with South Carolina after nine African-American citizens were massacred last month in an historically black church is the symbolism of the Confederate flag flying in public places in the American South.
It has been argued that there are more important issues at stake such as racism and gun control. Republican presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said the American public should blame confessed killer 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof – not the Confederate flag being proudly displayed in South Carolina. For people like Graham the flag stands for southern tradition – not racism.
When Adolf Hitler took power in 1930s Germany, the first law he brought to fruition was national legislation that made burning the German flag a crime punishable by imprisonment. In China, you will do three years in prison for burning their flag. Two other countries punish flag desecration: Iran and Cuba.
I was half paying attention to CNN day after the incident when someone defended the flying of the Confederate flag in front of the South Carolina statehouse because it represented “history.” The argument being that the people who object to the Confederate flag flying aren’t thinking about the 20,000 South Carolinian soldiers who died during the Civil War.
“It’s a symbol of family and my ancestors who defended the state from invasion. It was about standing up to a central government,” Chris Sullivan, who is a member of the Sons of the Confederacy, told CNN. “The things that our ancestors fought for were not novel and they really are the same issues we have today.”
The problem with that argument is that South Carolina batteries started the Civil War on April 12, 1861 by firing on Fort Sumter. The result was that 620,000 people died nationwide in the war – the people who started the war lost 20,000 of that total. So if the purpose of the Confederate flag is to remember the history – that is the bigger picture of the “history” that needs to be remembered.
The primary reason South Carolina gave for leaving the “union” in 1861 was that for 25 years the United States had failed to enforce the “Fugitive Slave Act” and that the election of Abraham Lincoln meant that slavery would be abolished. The elected leaders in Columbia saw “increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the Institution of Slavery” and declared that their membership in the United States of America was “hereby dissolved.”
Certainly nobody in South Carolina today could say that the United States government is not living up to its financial obligations to the state. According to an Atlantic Monthly study, South Carolina nets $7.87 for every dollar in pays in to the federal treasury – the highest rate of return in the country.
Another problem with the Confederate flag is – even if it is eventually removed from the Civil War memorial in front of the statehouse in the capitol city of Columbia – the flags will still be flying on Fort Sumter (if history is the main reason for the flags remaining – doesn’t it confuse the issue of who actually won knowing that the Stars and Bars fly on the fort where shots were first fired during the war?)
And South Carolina’s current state flag is a blue version of the red Sovereign-Secession Confederate flag from the Civil War. Five other states, including Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas, Florida and Alabama put Neo Geo spins on their state flags to try to confuse the issue about what their flags most look like. (Or, in the case of Mississippi, maybe not so confusing – as the Confederate battle flag is incorporated lock, stock and barrel into its own state flag.
And yet they say symbolism is not important. But if it is not important – then why are these six states still clinging to the rebel flag – the dynamic artistic representation of the dissolution of U.S. constitutional law? Some have pointed out that the United States flag and the current blue rebel flag of South Carolina are flying at half mast, while the red Confederate flag flies high atop its pole at full mast? The answer is clear if you look closely. The Confederate flag is clipped in place and cannot be lowered – no doubt to keep some well-meaning citizen from taking it down some night.
The display of the Nazi flag is not just illegal in Germany, it is also illegal in France. In fact, in areas of Europe where the Nazi flag cannot be legally displayed, neo-Nazis use the Confederate flag in its place. However, in the United States and Israel, it is not illegal to display the Nazi flag.
Two years ago, the German painter and sculptor Jonathan Meese was brought up on federal charges that he used the “symbols of unconstitutional organizations” by giving the Nazi salute twice during a public discussion about art for Der Spiegel magazine that veered off into performance art. Meese faced three years in prison for the salutes, but was eventually acquitted of all charges because what he did was judged to be “art.”
The modern-day people of South Carolina have taught us a lot about what to do in the face of tragedy and injustice. And what is going on in Charleston today has everything to do with knowing that we are all stakeholders in this great nation that we are all proud to call our own. These good people need new symbols to represent their new spirit.
What is artless is the specious argument that the Confederate flag still needs to be displayed, especially if it represents is schism and racism. One only has to look at the photos of “Peter” – released in 1863 during the height of the Civil War – to know which side we should come down on when it comes to the symbols of hate that divide us.