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Reflections on Metal Bikinis

I feel hesitant about saying any good may have come from the church shooting in Charleston last week. In every debate, at all times, we must remember that dozens of people lost their beloved friends and family members, a church lost its spiritual leaders, and a community lost positive social guides. They didn't die so we could learn. They died because a racist kid with an apparent prescription drug problem and a history of all the wrong Internet searches walked into their church with pro-subjugation iconography on his jacket and a gun stashed beneath it. He remained in that church for an hour, reportedly bandying scripture with parishioners (he identified as Lutheran), then blew nine innocent human beings into oblivion. The cause of that tragedy may be very specifically pinned on the shooter, not on the society around him nor on any of our laws or beliefs. It was his fault and his alone.

For whatever reason, however, it seems we've reached a collectively teachable moment. I'm including myself unequivocally. Among the more obnoxious traits of progressives like me is we can't resist opportunities to soapbox. We inject ourselves into every tragedy and exhaust with our liberal righteousness. I'm doing it, too! But I'm not without blame in this discussion. I admitted as much in my previous post, and I'll tell you right now I learned a great deal this week. I fact-checked dozens of Internet memes and offended Southern pride and was stunned at how little I knew about these topics. I'm an educated man. I read incessantly, including a great deal of history. I devoured A People's History of the United States, as you should if you haven't already. Yet I still find myself deeply ignorant. I wonder if our society goes out of its way to avoid facing its least admirable history. Who could blame us, I suppose, but it does catch up to us in moments like these.

I grew up in California. I saw the Confederate battle flag (note the phrasing) a few times in my youth, as on the "General Lee" Dodge Charger "them Duke boys" owned on Dukes of Hazzard. That changed when I moved to Oklahoma. Many Oklahomans identify as Southern. I don't know why. Oklahoma isn't in the south. Oklahoma didn't fight for the South in the Civil War, largely because it wasn't a state till 1907. Oklahomans are much more individualistic than Southerners, according to studies like the one described here [1]. I saw the "rebel flag" more often in Oklahoma, though, and heard many of the same arguments in its support that I'm reading from folks online now. They didn't hold water, then or now, despite superficial sentimental appeal.

One of the things I learned this week is that the "Confederate flag" is actually one of many such emblems. The first national flag of the Confederacy, aka the "Stars and Bars," looks like the Betsy Ross flag as drawn by someone too lazy to draw 13 stripes; it has three. It was designed by a German-American artist named Nicola Marschall, who was probably influenced by a similar Austrian flag. The so-called "rebel flag" began its history as the second official Confederate flag, designed by William Tappan Thompson. What a sweetheart this guy was. The familiar X on a red field was actually a square in the upper left corner of the flag. The flag's remaining expanse was all-white. Lest this seem an unfortunate coincidence, Thompson himself explained the design in the newspaper he ran, a paper now called the Savannah Morning News. "As a people," he wrote, "we are fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race; a white flag would thus be emblematical of our cause." He referred to his flag as the "Stainless Banner," the "stain" being people of color. But wait, there's more: he called his design "The White Man's Flag." Go, team!

The now-familiar Confederate X icon was magnified into a square flag to represent the Army of Northern Virginia, then stretched into the rectangular Second Confederate Navy Jack. That's the banner yet waving in South Carolina. By law, that flag can't be lowered to half-staff (except by a vote of the General Assembly), so it hasn't so much as dipped to signify mourning for Charleston's latest nine victims.

It's true the rebel flag is not South Carolina's state flag. It is also true that at least six other states have official flags designed around Confederate elements. (Don't believe me? Look here [2].) The question is whether we should continue to treat Confederate flags or iconography as anything better than shameful reminders.

I'm no expert on the Deep South, but I do know many Southerners ain't keen on folks from other regions dictating ethics, especially about matters that affect Southerners directly. I respect that, believe it or not. I respect it so much I've declined the opportunity to sign a national petition calling for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from South Carolina official state grounds. I'm in favor of removing it; I have no beef with other people signing the petition. I just hope the required number of signatures comes from South Carolinians with no outside help.

What might be helpful in that regard, however, is perspective. We get attached to the iconography of our childhood. Consider, for example, Princess Leia. How a 16-year-old got to be both a princess and a senator is beyond me, especially since Leia was adopted and had no royal Alderaanian blood, but I take my Star Wars history at its word. Princess Leia was an early adopter of feminist take-no-crappism. I like that. Her expressiveness and courage were a positive influence on girls, perhaps even on boys like me who got to see a strong female role model with a mouth every bit as fast as her blaster. Then came Return of the Jedi, in which Leia, a princess for the Maker's sake, allowed herself to be taken captive by "vile gangster Jabba the Hutt." She was garbed in a harem-girl bikini, then chained to a frog-addicted slug, presumably for sexual gratification. "Slave Leia," the action figure dubbed her, and she's basically the cause of puberty in all American males who came of age in the mid-1980s.

And she is basically a sex slave.

There's slavery all over the Star Wars universe, in fact. Droids, even such obviously sentient and emotional creatures as C-3P0 and R2-D2, get bought and sold in open slave auctions. Once purchased, droids apply the word "master" to their owners. Later, we find out Anakin Skywalker was born into slavery, albeit a dumbed-down form of slavery in which he gets to be a Tatooine-renowned podracer. But there it is: slavery. "We don't serve their kind here." Remember that? You can see it now, right? Pretty lousy, don't you think? I mean, now that you're actually thinking about it? I'd like that aspect of my beloved Star Wars movies to be dismissible, but it isn't. I'd love to say opposition to slavery, droid or otherwise, is a plank of the Rebellion Against the Empire, but in canonical materials at least, it never seems to come up. And why would it? The Rebellion's greatest heroes are all slave owners. Will this ethical dilemma be addressed in upcoming movies? I wouldn't bet your lightsaber on it. Don't expect Star Wars fans to rise up in united rejection of the Huttese bikini, either, no matter how skin-cancer-risky it might be on a world with two suns. That bikini is, as Lindsey Graham described the rebel flag, "part of who we are."

Similarly, the offensiveness of the Confederate battle flag is difficult for those who grew up around it to see. I imagine it's much easier for black Southerners to see, because that flag was made by racist whites in support of white racism. That's a fact. No matter what the flag may mean to individual Southerners now, it's damned by its very reason for being. And as soon as you know and understand that, don't you wonder how black Southerners feel seeing it day in and day out? Isn't that flag kind of the opposite of a welcome mat? Doesn't it scream "sorry, not sorry" for the Civil War? You know: that war to preserve slavery, declared in an act of outright treason against the duly-elected government of the United States?

Wait, wait, wait, you say, that war wasn't really about slavery. It was actually about--and I'm sorry, but I must stop you there. I have to nip that, you'll pardon the expression, whitewash in the bud. Think for a minute. We humans have a built-in tendency to justify our actions, rewriting history to amplify our nobility and obscure our mistakes. We see children do that all the time, and we adults do it, too. That's what's happening here. I say that with absolute confidence, because this week taught me the existence of the Cornerstone speech. That speech, delivered by Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens to the Savannah Athenaeum on March 21, 1861, reminded Georgians why Southern states seceded three weeks previously. Stephens did mention some of the Southern states'-rights complaints often cited in this argument, but then he said, "[A]llow me to allude to one other though last, not least. The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution: African slavery as it exists amongst us [and] the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this....The prevailing ideas entertained by him, and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically....Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the 'storm came and the wind blew.' Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition."

Some "great truth." So there ya go. Debate over. It can be proven from this, and from many other similar expressions by Confederate leaders at the time, that the South fought a war to preserve the slavery on which its economy rested. And that was a great moral wrong, one the South must acknowledge. The South deserved to lose that war. There's no glory in fighting a treasonous war so your region can continue to buy and sell human beings. Any flag or iconography that derives from and beckons respect for secession and slavery must be thought of as shameful. Yes, the rebel flag's part of Southern culture, just as the swastika's part of German history. Yet that doesn't mean it merits respect.

The Charleston shooter, whose name I won't repeat, put a CSA license plate on his car. That's no coincidence at all. It stood for the same racist hatred as the Rhodesian flag on his jacket. The rebel flag means many things to many people, but surely it always invokes rebellion. And rebellion against what, and for what? History provides those answers, and they must be taken seriously. It's time to put its relics behind us once and for all.


One last thing:

Folks like me have used this tragedy to revivify calls for increased gun control. I make no apologies whatsoever for being staunchly in favor of reducing the number and power of guns in our country, nor for supporting the banning of untrustworthy people from owning them. I learned after Newtown, however, that nothing I say about guns--nothing, in fact, that the entirety of statistical data reveals about the overwhelming danger of our society's gun laws and attitudes--will make any damn difference. You'll believe about guns tomorrow exactly what you believed about them yesterday; and God forbid that ever comes to haunt you or your family. I mean that. It's kind of like slave Leia, though: people go to their graves defending what made them happy when they were kids. And that's okay...until it isn't.