As longtime readers of my stuff know, I’ve got a real ax to grind whenever someone tries to justify display of Confederate regalia, particularly the Confederate Battle Flag (a.k.a., the Cross of St. Andrew), as an innocent symbol of “southern pride.” As a proud southerner who regards the Confederacy (not to mention the neo-Confederacy of the late Jim Crow era) as a shameful period in my home region’s history, I felt this way even before I helped Zell Miller (you know, the old Zell Miller, before he turned to the dark side) write the 1993 State of the State Address calling for eliminating the Battle Flag from Georgia’s state flag. And as the years went by, amnesia about both the Confederacy and the Battle Flag has always made me a bit crazy, driving me at one point to write a long rant about Appomattox. When Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell declared a “Confederate History Month” in 2010, I counter-proposed a “Neo-Confederate History Month” to take notice of the long, dark shadow the Lost Cause had cast over white and black southern folk in the many years since the planters’ revolution failed. And I got agitated just last month when country music star Brad Paisley tried to claim the Battle Flag was just an innocent token of “southern pride” (presumably “white southern pride,” since I’m not aware of too many African-Americans sporting the symbol).
This is all preamble to what I feel I need to address to former U.S. Rep. Ben “Cooter” Jones, cracker to cracker, about the hissy fit he pitched in the Boston Globe yesterday in response to the decision by Rep. Ed Markey’s campaign to disinvite Jones from performing at fundraiser for his “old pal Eddie” because it discovered he’s a loud-and-proud defender of the display of the Battle Flag (most notably emblazoned on the car he drove as a character on Dukes of Hazzard).
I’m not going to quote Cooter’s op-ed extensively; you can read it for yourself. His private views on the subject (the standard-brand post-neo-Confederate “populist” view that the Battle Flag was just misappropriated by racists and should offend no one if displayed by non-racists) wouldn’t have been an issue if Jones hadn’t waged a very public battle last year with NASCAR (word to Cooter: when you are to the right of NASCAR, it’s time to reconsider) over its “politically correct” decision to bar the car from The Dukes, named “General Lee,” from a raceway). I guess a really good staff vetting might have also turned up Doug Wilder’s complaint when Jones used the General Lee in his unsuccessful 2002 congressional campaign in Virginia (Cooter lost to some guy named Eric Cantor).
In the op-ed, Jones complains that he’s got a sterling civil rights record, and I’m sure that’s true. I’m also sure he doesn’t have a racist bone in his body. I actually know the guy a little from back in the day, when I did some light campaign work for him in Georgia. And I was one of his constituents when he was in Congress, and thought he was a fine public servant. And yes, I am very familiar with the constant temptation southern white liberals (or as they usually style themselves, “populists”) have succumbed to over the years to try to make some common cultural bond with good ol’ boys by adopting Confederate symbols–without, of course, the racism. Hell, I remember a southern-based New Left group back in the 60s that made as its logo a Battle Flag with the clenched fist of The Movement at the center!
But I’d say to Ben Jones (as another “old pal Eddie”) that it’s time, and actually far past time, to give it up and consign the Battle Flag to its well-deserved grave in the Museum of Bad Symbols. Seriously, Ben, aside from its original association with a violent revolution against the United States in the cause of human bondage, and aside from its long association with Jim Crow, and aside from its twentieth-century revival as the emblem of hard-core resistance to measures of basic decency, and aside from the fact that it defines “southern pride” in a way that inherently excludes a huge number of actual and hereditary southerners–aside from all that, if you can possibly put all that aside: displaying that Flag makes four violent years of failure that plunged our region into grinding poverty and cultural isolation for nearly a century the centerpiece of southern identity. That’s an insult to all the southerners who lived before and after the disaster of the Confederacy, and a continuing distortion of what it means to be southern.
To use an appropriate analogy, if the Serbs can give up Kosovo, white southerners can give up the Confederacy and its symbols. Most of them, in fact, already have. But the process of recovery won’t be helped by southern celebrities, however well-meaning, running around the country taking offense at the “political correctness” of people who don’t have much stomach for the St. Andrew’s Cross and its bloody history.