Monthly Archives: July 2014

Why You Can’t Separate The Confederate Flag from its History

An Army of Tennessee Confederate Battle Flag. This is image is historically linked to the preservation of slavery, no matter what other symbolisms later generations have attached to it.

An Army of Tennessee Confederate Battle Flag. This image is historically linked to the preservation of slavery, no matter what other meanings later generations have attached to it.

The Confederate battle flag inspires, shall we say, some passionate opinions among different groups of Americans. To a particularly weird contingent of neo-Confederate apologists, including the various branches of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), the flag symbolizes “Loving the South and defending its culture, symbols and heritage.” These groups go out of their way to separate the Rebel flag from its historical associations with slavery and racism and claim that the emblem merely represents their love of all-things Dixie. To other groups, however, especially African-Americans, the Confederate flag is a historic symbol that invokes the legacy of slavery and racism that defined the American South for generations.

So who’s in the right here? Does the Rebel flag today merely serve as a symbol for historically illiterate Bubbas to wave in the name of “Heritage, Not Hate?” Or, does the flag still symbolize slavery and racism — basically the two worst things about the Old South? The answer is both complicated and straightforward.

Yes, people of different generations have attached different meanings to the Confederate flag to the point where, on one hand, it’s now little more than a generic symbol for rebellion that fuels a decidedly tasteless bumper-sticker and bikini industry. But on the other hand, the Confederate flag emerged at a very specific point in American history. It served as the military emblem of an army whose government, the Confederate States of America, waged a treasonous war against the United States in the name of defending, upholding, and perpetuating racial slavery. This is the real history of the flag that makes many Americans (justifiably) uncomfortable, and its a history that will forever be linked to the stars and bars.

The flag’s historical association with slavery and racism has always made it a banner controversy (oh yeah, that pun was intended). Case-in-point: Talking Points Memo recently reported that students and alumni of Douglas S. Freeman High School in Richmond, Virginia have signed a petition to bring back their stars and bars-clad “Rebel Man” mascot. The move has proved controversial, but proponents of bringing back the mascot claim that “The Rebel Man was never intended to embark racism or start any kind of political controversy, but only to represent our city’s history.”

Unfortunately, the history that “Rebel Man” is intended to represent is quite loaded: Richmond, Virginia served as the capital of the Confederacy after it was moved from Montgomery, Alabama in early 1861. Knowing this full-well, one Freeman High School student echoed a familiar (and tired) refrain when he claimed that, “Since Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy, a Southern soldier really represents us as a school…This Rebel Man does not represent racism or slavery.”

The "White House" where Confederate president Jefferson Davis lived in Richmond, Virginia.

The “White House” where Confederate president Jefferson Davis lived in Richmond, Virginia.

Of course, whether or not that student believes that Confederate imagery “does not represent racism or slavery,” the fact remains that the rebel flag and its associated symbolism historically represents a breakaway nation whose “cornerstone,” as explained by its vice-president, Alexander Stephens, was “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.” Based on this “cornerstone,” the majority of the slave-holding southern states formed the Confederate States of America in 1861 as an explicitly white-supremacist nation dedicated to defending the right to own black slaves.

And just how dedicated to slavery were the Confederate States of America, you ask? Well, consider the fact that the Confederate Constitution was, for all intents-and-purposes, a virtual carbon-copy of the American Constitution, but with a crucial difference: it had provisions clearly defending the right to preserve slavery. While it’s true that the American Constitution in its original form was essentially a pro-slavery document (it did have that whole three-fifths clause, after all), the framers of the Confederate Constitution went out of their way to make sure that NOBODY on earth could EVER deprive the South’s of its hard-working and EXTREMELY under-paid labor force.

Article I Section 9(4) of the Confederate Constitution reads that, “No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.” That’s pretty straightforward, innit? But the fun doesn’t stop there! Article IV Section 3(3) reads that, “The Confederate States may acquire new territory; and… In all such territory the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected be Congress and by the Territorial government; and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories shall have the right to take to such Territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the States or Territories of the Confederate States.”

You get all that? Basically, the Confederate Constitution not only protected slavery, but it also protected the right to perpetually extend slavery into any new Confederate territories FOR-EVER. Don’t believe me? Then read the dang thing for yourself! These Rebels were in the slavery business for the long haul, folks, and this is the uncomfortable fact that some contemporary Americans want to gloss over when they claim that you can wave the flag of a nation dedicated to slavery and white supremacy while simultaneously denying that said flag has anything to do with slavery and white supremacy. Sorry, but it just doesn’t work like that.

There's a reason why these hooded clowns tend to wave the Confederate flag: they know its history.

There’s a reason why these hooded clowns tend to wave the Confederate flag: they know its history.

But debates over the appropriateness of displaying the Rebel flag in public settings aren’t likely to go away any time soon. As historian John Coski writes in The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem (a book I referenced in an earlier post about the flag’s legacy), “Even though the battle flag was the banner of a people striving to break away from the Union and protect the institution of slavery, those people were Americans.”* This means that the Confederate flag is also an American symbol, and it stirs high emotions precisely because it invokes the negative issues of slavery, racism, and inequality that are supposed to be contrary to American ideals but for which hundreds-of-thousands of Americans gave their lives in battle.

The Rebel flag makes us uncomfortable because it symbolizes a time in history when half the country took the worst aspects of American society and tried to form a new nation dedicated to those aspects. But it’s too easy to blame only the South here; after all, throughout the nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries, racism and white supremacy were American values, not merely southern ones. Even though the Union won the Civil War, the Federal government wasn’t exactly committed to full-on, post-war racial equality, and the northern states didn’t exactly become havens of racial tolerance in the decades following the Confederacy’s demise.

Thus, the Rebel flag is controversial because it reminds Americans of a racist set of values that were once widely held; the South was just more honest about holding them. Nevertheless, the fact of widespread American historical racism is no excuse to blindly claim that the Confederate flag has nothing to do with racism and slavery. History is clear about the flag’s unfortunate connotations, and it’s a history that you can’t separate from the stars and bars. There’s plenty of other symbols of southern pride that ALL southerners — and all Americans — can get behind (like sweet tea; damn that stuff’s good), so let’s leave the Confederate flag where it belongs: to history.

* See John Coski, The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005), 293.

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The Border Children Crisis and Manifest Destiny’s Return

Protestors in California want refugee kids sent back ti Latin America. Because human beings are just mail packages that you can send back within thirty days.

Protesters in California want refugee kids sent back to Latin America. Because human beings are just like brown mail packages that you can return within thirty days.

Ah, Latin America. It’s a vast, culturally diffuse part of the world with a rich, complicated history that has involved hundreds of ethnic-groups from an incredibly diverse swath of ancestries and experiences. Moreover, Latin America’s political history shares many similarities with that of the United States, as our neighbors to the south also shook off the shackles of European colonialism during the great Age of Revolution.

But most Americans — especially that know-nothing contingent of reactionary Bubbas that we affectionately call “Wingnuts” — don’t know much of anything about Latin America’s rich history. What they DO know is that Latin America is that place where people play soccer and Fidel Castro plots against freedom. It’s also the place where American college kids and mid-life-crisis wracked adults go to get sh*tfaced off of Sammy Hagar tequila while holding wet t-shirt contests on a beach. But, most importantly, Latin America is where all of those illegal, Spanish-speaking, drug-muling, job-taking brown people come from. That’s right: when many Americans talk “immigration” these days, what they’re focusing on is how to keep the Messicans’ and other Hispanics from crossing America’s sacred, freedom-filled borders. Indeed, in the eyes of the Tea Party, the only good kind of “run for the border” is a late-night Taco Bell binge.

Despite it’s obvious history as a “nation of immigrants,” white Americans have never been particularly thrilled about the idea of Spanish-speaking folks seeking refuge among America’s amber waves of grain. This fact is on full display in the current Border Children crisis in California, Arizona, and Texas.

As Salon’s Joan Walsh reports, self-appointed wingnut border patrols have gathered in places like Murrieta, California and Oracle, Arizona to stop busloads of unaccompanied children from Central American countries such as Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala from seeking asylum in America. For wingnuts, the crisis of 52,000 Central American kids fleeing to the United States is yet another chapter in the long struggle to prevent brown Hispanics from polluting white American soil with their illegal Hispanic-ness. Geriatric wingnut leader Robert Skiba said as much when he told right-wing internet cesspool Breitbart.com that, “we’ve got to wake people in America up…This is our country. We’re just average people. [But] we’re not going to let them shove this down our throats.”

Of course, the “this” that Skiba doesn’t want shoved down his throat are, in fact, human beings — specifically children fleeing murder, rape, and horrendous gang violence in Central America. In two harrowing reports for the New York Times, reporters Frances Robles and Sonia Nazario have detailed the horrific humanitarian crisis in Latin America that is sending unaccompanied kids to the U.S. border. Gang violence in countries like Honduras has resulted in the torture, rape, and murder of dozens of children — some as young as 7 — and thousands are now fleeing or being sent to the U.S. by their parents to avoid the terrors in the home countries. Gangs are roaming Central America with increasing impunity, and they are giving children a choice between recruitment or death.

The clothes of a 7-year old boy murdered by gangs in Honduras.  Photo by Meridith Kohut, New York Times

The clothes of a 7-year old boy murdered by gangs in Honduras. Photo by Meridith Kohut, New York Times.

The violence in Latin American countries has, in large part, been an offshoot of the brutal drug wars that are fueled by America’s inexhaustible appetite for illegal narcotics. You, dear readers, owe it to yourselves to read both Robles’ and Nazario’s Times reports in full to better understand why so many kids are seeking refugee status in the U.S. But for the rest of this post, I want to focus on the cultural force that is driving American right-wing opposition to the border children: the return of the nineteenth century concept of Manifest Destiny.

I discussed Manifest Destiny in an earlier post in terms of how it helped create America’s absurd gun culture, but let’s reiterate a bit. “Manifest Destiny” was a term coined in 1845 by journalist John O’Sullivan that described America’s inherent, God-given right to conquer all territories and cultures from sea to shining sea. But the idea of “Manifest Destiny” existed long before O’Sullivan coined the phrase— it was the ideological centerpiece of Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal policy, for example — and it has never entirely gone away from American discourse over what constitutes American citizenship. In effect, “Manifest Destiny” was the nineteenth century version of “American Exceptionalism.”

Manifest Destiny contains a distinct racial component that has always cast the U.S. as a nation dominated by white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. In the decades following the Civil War, other, previously excluded white Americans like Irish Catholics were gradually granted admittance into exclusive club of white cultural dominance. But other groups, especially African-Americans and Hispanics, have traditionally been denied the right to participate in the Manifest Destiny that has deemed the United States to be a white man’s country. It is this idea — that America has been, and should continue to be, a country for whites to control — that animates current right-wing opposition to the border children.

Historian Reginald Horsman outlined this concept in his classic 1981 study, Race and Manifest Destiny: Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism. By the mid-nineteenth century, Horsman writes, the U.S. cultural emphasis was on “the American Anglo-Saxons as a separate, innately superior people who were destined to bring good government, commercial prosperity, and Christianity to the American continents and to the world.”* Thus, white Americans were “destined” to “manifest” their superiority everywhere they roamed. The phrase “Anglo-Saxon” is a now largely outdated term that was popularly used in nineteenth and early twentieth-century America “to describe the white people of the United States in contrast to blacks, Indians, Mexicans, Spaniards, or Asiatics.”*

JOhn Gast's famous 1872 painintg despicting "Manifest Destiny." Here' Lady Liberty can be seen trouncing mercilessly over Indians, Blacks, and Hispanics.

John Gast’s famous 1872 painting depicting American Progress via “Manifest Destiny.” Here, Lady Liberty can be seen trouncing mercilessly over Indians, Blacks, and Hispanics.

But while we might not use the phrase “Anglo-Saxon” much anymore, the idea that it supported — that white Americans alone were destined to be the only true U.S. citizens — still shapes white, conservative American opposition to Latin American “illegals.” As legal scholar Bill Ong Hing observes in his book Defining America Through Immigration Policy, “immigration policies are not simply reflections of whom we regard as potential Americans, they are vehicles for keeping out those who do not fit the image and welcoming those who do.”*

American conservatism, especially the Tea Party, anti-Latin American immigrant strain of conservatism that is trying to bar the Central American refugee children from entering the U.S., is a manifestation of what Ong Hing calls the reactionary “other America.” This America has remained “largely mired in a Eurocentric (originally western Eurocentric) vision of America that idealized the true American as white, Anglo-Saxon, English-speaking, and Christian.”* It is this part of conservative America that still revels in their perceived “Manifest Destiny” to keep America white and free of the brown, Spanish-speaking menace that is constantly threatening to cross the U.S. border.

Make no mistake, folks: Manifest Destiny is alive and well in twenty-first century America. These days, we’re more prone to calling it “American Exceptionalism,” but the core feeling is still the same. It’s an ugly mix of provincial ignorance, cultural myopia, discredited racial theories, and an astounding lack of self-awareness that precludes so many people from recognizing that, unless they’re actual indigenous Native Americans, they too are immigrants. And unfortunately, thousands of children are paying the price for this old-time American ignorance, because if they’re sent back to Central America, they’ll likely end up in body bags. But hey, it’s a small price to pay for freedom, right?

* See Reginald Horsman, Race and Manifest Destiny: Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), 2, 5.

* See Bill Ong Hing, Defining America Through Immigration Policy (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004), 2, 5.

Hobby Lobby and the Real Meaning of Religious Liberty

You have a right to religious beliefs that are scientifically inaccurate, but you don't have a right to make others subscribe to those beliefs.

As these protesters recognize, you have a right to religious beliefs that are scientifically inaccurate, but you don’t have a right to make others subscribe to those beliefs.

Ah, yes, America: it’s a country with no official state religion in which people of all backgrounds can practice their respective faiths without the government deciding which faith is “true” via legislative action. Well, at least that’s the kind of country the United States is supposed to be, but thanks to the right-wing Catholic dude-bro contingent of the United States Supreme Court, “religious freedom” apparently now constitutes the right to make other people (especially women) accept as fact your own particular religious dogma via laws that sanctify (in more ways than one) those beliefs.

I am, of course, referring to the Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that allows closely held (ie., non publicly traded) corporations to be except from the Obamacare mandate that employers provide contraceptives as part of their female employees’ heath plans. In keeping with a millenia-old tradition in which “religion” has too often been a code word for men controlling how the wimmin-folk use their lady-parts, the court’s conservative, male, Catholic justices made up the majority decision, with Justice Samuel “The Catholic Crusher” Alito opining that closely held corporations have the right to deny women contraceptive coverage simply because said corporations believe that contraception is the same damn thing as abortion, which it ain’t.

As I discussed at length in an earlier post, the case was instigated primarily by David Green and his family, the fundamentalist Christian owners of the arts and crafts store Hobby Lobby. The Greens believe that certain types of birth control, specifically Plan B, Ella, and a pair of intrauterine devices are, in fact, “abortifacients;” i.e, they cause abortions. This belief, however, is completely, utterly, false. It’s wrong. It’s not right. It’s scientifically falsifiable. As Mother Jones’ Erika Eichelberger and Molly Redden note, “Alito and the four other conservative justices on the court were essentially overruling not just an Obamacare regulation, but science. According to the Food and Drug Administration, all four of the contraceptive methods Hobby Lobby objects to…do not prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg into the uterus, which the owners of Hobby Lobby consider abortion. Instead, these methods prevent fertilization.”

Hobby Lobby’s position makes a weird kind of sense when you consider that the hallmark of religious fundamentalism is its obsessive rejection of secular-scientific advancements that contradict “traditional” faith beliefs regardless of the empirically verifiable validity of those beliefs. But that said, let’s be clear: the Hobby Lobby folks are free to believe whatever they want, truth and reality be damned (or not damned, if you subscribe to their point of view), but they don’t have the right to impose those beliefs on other people. This is what we mean by the phrase “religious liberty” in America, and it’s why the Supreme Court’s decision is dunder-headed and just plain wrong.

The idea of “religious liberty” is a concept that was debated during the earliest days of the Constitutional era following the American Revolution, and it’s a concept we still struggle with today. In his book Religion in American Politics: A Short History, historian Frank Lambert identifies the core point of division between religious and secular forces in America. “[R]eligious coalitions seek by political means what the Constitution prohibits, namely, a national religious establishment, or, more specifically, a Christian civil religion,” he writes.* But those wishing to make U.S. laws abide by particular religious codes have run into the problematic reality of secular forces and other religious groups that also want, and deserve, a voice in the public sphere. As Lambert writes, “the result is sometimes a clash between the country’s secular laws, which reflect the tenets of liberal capitalism and the free exchange of goods, and the ‘higher laws’ that religious groups cite to condemn certain goods and services offered in the marketplace.”*

These six Supreme Court justices are Catholic. But guess which one didn't vote in favor of Hobby Lobby, and then guess why.

These six Supreme Court justices are Catholic. But guess which one didn’t vote in favor of Hobby Lobby, and then guess why.

Science is one of those secular forces that challenges religion in the public sphere, and it has the weight of empirical evidence behind it that sometimes runs afoul of religious groups’ by-definition evidence-free ‘higher laws.’ Because religion often relies of these ‘higher laws,’ some types of religious folks — especially Christian fundamentalists — are thoroughly convinced that their laws should be EVERYONE’S laws, because who would dare argue with the TRUTH?! It’s these sanctimonious scallywags — not religious people in general — that the Constitution wisely prohibits from establishing a theocratic government in America. And it’s this prohibition that fundamentalists like the Hobby Lobby goons want to challenge.

No figure in American history recognized the threat posed by overly self-righteous believers better than the most Founding Father-est of all the Founding Fathers: Thomas Jefferson. Ole’ T-Jeff eloquently detailed the problem posed by unshaken religious dogmatism in his 1786 Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom, a key document that he drafted in response to religious coercion by the Anglican Church. Before the American Revolution, the Anglican Church of England was the state church of the Virginia colony, and as such, all Virginians were legally compelled to attend church services and support its operations through taxation.

The Anglican Church’s domination of state laws pissed off renegade sects of Baptists and Presbyterians, and, in an effort to liberalize Virginia’s religious liberty laws in accordance with an independent, republican state — and to gain non-Anglican groups’ support for the Patriots during the fight against Britain — Jefferson, with much input from fellow Founding Father James Madison, drafted the Virginia Religious Freedom Statute in 1777. The Virginia General Assembly then adopted the statute in 1786. That’s right: Jefferson drafted his statute in support of religious pluralism in part to protect the rights of minority religions against the heavy-handedness of a state religion. He recognized that nothing dampens religious liberty more than Theocracy.

Among the key arguments in Jefferson’s statute is the timeless observance that some über-pious pilgrims just can’t help but force their particular beliefs onto others, and that American law must guard against this tendency. Jefferson warned against “all attempts” to influence the free human mind through “temporal punishments or burthens” imposed by “the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical.” He recognized that religious people, like ALL people, were “themselves but fallible and uninspired.” When these theocrats “have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible,” Jefferson wrote, they had only “established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time.”

Jefferson realized that forcing others to abide by YOUR particular brand of religious dogma is, you know, kind of tyrannical. Establishing any kind of state religion was “a dangerous fallacy which at once destroys all religious liberty,” he wrote, because the person wishing to force his beliefs on others “will make his opinions the rule of judgment and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own.” This is precisely what Hobby Lobby is doing by effectively trying to turn a purely religious belief into a state law.

Thomas Jefferson. He wasn't perfect, but on occasion, he did write some good material.

Thomas Jefferson. He wasn’t perfect, but on occasion, he did write some good material.

Justice Alito’s argument highlights this absurdity while at the same time sanctioning it into law when he writes that, “the owners of the businesses have religious objections to abortion, and according to their religious beliefs the four contraceptive methods at issue are abortifacients.” As Wonkette’s Kaili Joy Gray writes, “does it matter whether their ‘religious beliefs’ are in any way, like, scientifically accurate? Nope, writes Alito, because ‘it is not for us to say that their religious beliefs are mistaken or insubstantial.'” She thus reaches the disturbing conclusion that Hobby Lobby has “a First Amendment right to believe whatever they want…and that First Amendment right is far more important than, say, a woman and her doctor to choose the best method of contraception for her.”

And there’s the religious rub. By demanding that the highest court in the land recognize, through law, the utterly non-factual belief that “abortifacients” cause an abortion, Hobby Lobby is forcing its employees to tacitly accept the “validity” of their religious beliefs. This denies Hobby Lobby employees, as well as other workers now placed at the whims of their potentially wingnut boss’s non-factual religious notions, the right to be free from religiously based coercion. This is the kind of coercion Jefferson warned was a direct threat to actual religious liberty.

But perhaps I’m putting too fine a point on the whole “religious liberty” angle and taking Hobby Lobby a bit too much at their own word. Why, you ask? Because this whole Supreme Court brouhaha may have nothing to do with “religious liberty” and everything to do about promoting a patriarchal culture that keeps men in control over women’s most personal rights. As Mother Jones details, Hobby Lobby has for years included contraception in employer retirement plans and has invested in them via manufacturers of all kinds of birth control. Perhaps those who are the most vocally self-righteous are always Pharisees in disguise. Jefferson would probably agree, dammit.

And as far as the Supreme Court goes: the five-justice majority that decided the Hobby Lobby decision are Catholic, male, and conservative. Is it wrong for me to suggest that subscribing to a religion that opposes contraception may have influenced these justices’ votes? You be the judge of that.

* See Frank Lambert, Religion in American Politics: A Short History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 5,7.