Confederate Symbols

The last time Confederate symbols were Topic A was two summers ago, when a deeply troubled twenty-one year old named Dylann Roof murdered nine members of a Bible study group at the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.  A photograph of Roof alongside a Confederate battle flag became a fixture on cable news.

My view, then and now, is that the focus on symbols – mainly flags in 2015, now also statues — is misguided, but that, in matters such as these, since African Americans have the most at stake, they should call the shots.

If they want those symbols out of public spaces, then out they should go.

Making a fetish of the Stars and Stripes has long been an American pastime, especially in benighted circles, so it is not surprising that exceptionally benighted people with nefarious values and aims would regard Confederate flags the same way.  In the end, though, like all flags, they are just pieces of cloth.  And inasmuch as few, if any, of the offending monuments are of significant historical or aesthetic interest, there is no compelling reason to retain them.

Therefore, even if I am right in thinking that all the fuss is diversionary, going along with it is basically harmless, except perhaps to the people who fetishize those symbols.  It is hard not to feel that they deserve it.

It should be noted too that some good has come out of this latest eruption of sound and fury.  For example, more notice is taken and there is more discussion of white supremacy generally than there was two years ago – not just within communities that have always born the brunt of racial injustice, but also among people who would otherwise be oblivious.  Ironically, Donald Trump and the miscreants who crawled out from under the rock he turned over have helped increase awareness too.

Also, the Black Lives Matter movement, having assumed something like a vanguard role within the African American activist community, broadened its purview, partly in consequence of the heightened level of consciousness brought on by struggles over Confederate symbols.  While retaining its focus on police violence, it took on matters of general concern to African Americans and other persons of color.  With so many older civil rights militants coopted into a Democratic Party reeking of Clintonite (neoliberal, liberal imperialist) politics, the need for a new leadership, with uncompromised moral authority, was and remains obvious.

But there are no unmixed blessings; and when unexamined emotions become politically consequential, it is easy to get off track.

I think something like that happened two years ago, the last time Confederate symbols were much in the news; specifically, that a political initiative that might have kept both Trump and Clinton at bay was quashed.  Hardly anyone agreed with me then, and I daresay that even fewer would agree with me now, but it is worth recalling nevertheless — because, insofar as my idea was not wildly implausible, it does illustrate how according uncritical support to efforts to villainize Confederate symbols can have a downside.

It was already clear, back then, that all the GOP contenders, not just Trump, were incompetent buffoons.   Believing naively that the vast majority of voters would realize this and draw the obvious conclusion, I was sure that any minimally competent Democrat would prevail in November.

I was probably right.  Where I went wrong was in not realizing how incompetent a candidate Hillary Clinton would be.  My problems with her then had mainly to do with the politics associated with her and her husband’s name.  Obama was bad enough; she was on track for making him look good.

Of course, I also knew that competence was not her forte; that as a First Lady, a Senator and a Secretary of State, she had messed up a lot, doing little good and much harm.  But I never thought that losing to Trump was more than just a theoretical possibility, even for her.

I also thought that of all the actual and potential challengers to the Clinton juggernaut, a group that included Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, Jim Webb, the former Virginia Senator, just might be just the one to pull it off, edging the country towards a slightly more salutary political dispensation in the process.

Anyone who is curious about why I held this admittedly idiosyncratic view can look here.  There is no point in going back over the arguments because what was probably a non-starter all along became moot in light of the reaction to the Charlestown murders.  Unfair as it might be, the symbolism was wrong.

Suffice it to say that I knew, and still know, little about Webb’s politics, though I suspected that it was no worse than the average Democrat’s.  I was mainly impressed by the evident depth of his understanding of the moral complexities of soldiering and war, and by the fact that he is an author of considerable merit, unlike any other American politician at the national level in modern times.

Webb was also a man of the Appalachian south with ties to his own people, and apparently also to their black neighbors.  Clinton had no time for the former.  For the latter, she had kind words and trickle down beneficence derived from her and her husband’s decades long courtship of amenable African American notables, and from their ties to the region’s, and the country’s, black political machines.

Black-white alliances, based on solidarities arising out of the struggles of “the wretched of the earth,” had been part of the region’s political landscape in the past, despite the efforts of the white power structure to encourage a kind of white identity politics grounded in racist attitudes.  Webb was giving voice to a progressive “populist” sensibility at odds with the “populism” they espoused.

He was also speaking as a creature of a post-World War II military culture that, though hardly “post-racial,” has done more to cut across racial lines than most other societal institutions.  In recent decades, one of the very few good things to come out of the American military, the Marines especially, has been an expectation of trans-racial comradeship.  As a Marine with a record of service more unambiguously “heroic” than, say, John McCain’s, Webb was very much a part of that world.

The kind of militant, class-conscious racial politics that brought the white (mainly Appalachian) Young Patriots together with the (mainly Puerto Rican) Young Lords and the Black Panthers half a century ago has long been out of reach; and, in any case, such alliances can never be forged from the top down in the course of electoral campaigns.

But it was not out of the question, I thought, that someone at the top of the Democratic ticket, who holds generally progressive views, and who is of, by, and for the people, as distinct from corporate and Wall Street elites, could do wonders to encourage the requisite bottom-up organizing efforts that need to take place for the goals of Black Lives Matter and other anti-racist organizations to advance.

Not implausibly, though on the basis of only scant evidence, I suggested that Webb might be just what the doctor ordered.

More likely than not, this was a pipe dream.  But, then, in the very earliest days of the campaign for the Democratic nomination, so was the idea that, for example, Bernie Sanders’ campaign would take off to the point where, had the fix not been in, he might actually have won.

We will never know, thanks in part to the reaction against Confederate symbols that erupted in the aftermath of Roof’s murderous rampage.


Donald Trump is incapable of reasoned argument, but he does sometimes have a point.  Whatever the reasons behind it, his interest in good relations with Russia is an example.  Another is his claim that if Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee should not be memorialized because they owned slaves, then neither should Thomas Jefferson or George Washington.

Trump’s idea was to rile up his base by playing the “political correctness” card; with that audience, the PC ploy never fails.   However, his position is not without merit. It has been painful to observe liberal commentators arguing otherwise.

They could argue, as I just did, that removing Confederate symbols and getting Confederate monuments out of public spaces is no big deal.  But pragmatic considerations like that are not for them; they would prefer to moralize.

The problem, though, is that they have no defensible way to do that because they cannot justify the distinction they want to draw – between, say, Washington and Lee — and that, because they cannot, those symbols and monuments really are just the top of a slippery slope.  This puts them in a dilemma: they can either argue for their position on pragmatic grounds or acquiesce in its arbitrariness.

I would venture that the pragmatic argument is the best they can do: too much is named for Jefferson and Washington.  And why stop with them?  What about the other great Virginia planters and their slave-owning co-thinkers throughout the South who contributed to the republic’s founding and growth?

Many of the other founders, the Northern merchants and traders, benefited from the slave trade and the South’s slave economy too.  Why should they be cut slack?  And then, of course, there is Christopher Columbus.

In a country whose capital city is called Washington, DC, purging symbols of the Confederacy and of the extermination of indigenous peoples would be no mean feat.  There are so many reasons not to go down that path.  Unless we were prepared to deny almost the entirety of our history, there is no way to wipe the slate clean.

The line among liberal pundits is that the difference between good slave-owners like Washington and Jefferson and bad ones like Davis and Lee is that the former helped found the United States, while the latter fought against it.   This they call “treason,” the implication being that this puts them in an altogether different, and far more reprehensible, moral plane.

Really?  For self-righteous talking heads, the consensus seems to be that the difference is too obvious to require justification.  But they are plainly mistaken.

Davis and Lee were no less conscious of the morally problematic nature of slavery than Jefferson, much less the other Southern planters there at the creation.  Indeed, having come of age at a time when New World slavery was everywhere disputed, and already abolished throughout much of the Caribbean and Central and South America, they were, if anything, even more aware.

Moreover, many of the Confederacy’s leaders, including Davis and Lee, had done yeoman service for the United States, its army especially, before the Civil War.  They were no more eager to betray the nation they served than they were ardent and unconflicted proponents of slavery. Their first loyalty, however, was to their respective states.

At a time when the United States, like most other nation states around the world, was still in formation, this was hardly exceptional.  The United States was different from the others mainly in supporting two different models of capital accumulation: one based on agricultural exports and chattel slavery the other on commerce and wage labor.

This caused it to be, as Lincoln said, “a house divided.”  It did not, however, make it a house divided by “deplorable” people in the thrall of white supremacist ideology, and righteous folk devoted to the idea that, in Jefferson’s words, “all men (sic) are created equal.”

Economic exigencies, not white supremacist attitudes, account for the South’s accumulation model.  Racist attitudes came to the fore there, as in the North, mainly for psychological reasons; because the minds of oppressors, and of beneficiaries of oppression, need to justify their oppression of others to themselves.

Insofar as those attitudes were more evident in the South than in the North, demography was largely to blame.   In slave-owning regions, racial politics was woven into the fabric of daily life; in the North, it was, for the most part, something that happened somewhere else.

Indeed, the original laborers in the plantations established in North America and the Caribbean were indentured servants from the British Isles; local indigenous peoples were another labor source.  Had those arrangements worked out satisfactorily, there would never have been a reason to import slaves from Africa.

But they didn’t work out.  Too many longstanding common law protections stood in the way of a developed labor regime based on indentured servitude; and local Indian populations proved too difficult for planters to bring to heel.  To fulfill the labor requirements of the emerging plantation system, the indigenous peoples of the Americas were, in any case, too decimated by the diseases that European settlers brought with them to be of much use.

And so, the Atlantic slave trade began.

The dynamic in territories conquered by the Spanish and Portuguese was different, but in regions suitable for plantation agriculture under their control, they relied on African slaves too.   Slavery, in fact, started earlier and lasted longer in parts of the Spanish and Portuguese empires than in the United States –nearly three decades longer in some cases.  Brazil and Cuba were among the very last to abolish it.  Race relations in those countries have generally been better than in the United States, especially in Cuba, since even before the Revolution.

It can never be clear exactly how to apportion blame, but it would be fair to say that the dreadful state of race relations in the United States after Reconstruction is not so much the fault of the fact of secession as of the divide and conquer strategy perpetrated by the propertied classes, even before the Reconstruction era ended.  The connection between the emerging Jim Crow system and the Confederacy was not as organic as some black activists and the well-meaning liberals who support them uncritically assume.

It is even clearer that when those liberals struggle to distinguish, say, Washington from Lee, that charges of treason and violent insurrection ring hollow.  What, after all, was the Revolutionary War about?


In deepest Virginia, there is a perfectly honorable university, comprised of a well-regarded liberal arts college, a Law School and a Business School; its name is “Washington and Lee.”  Its record on race, and its acceptance rate for students of color are no worse, or maybe slightly better, than at comparable institutions.

Of course, when Southern schools were segregated from kindergarten up, it was too.  But as far as I know, nobody, black or white, thought of it as more racist than normal for its time and place; nobody nowadays does either.  Washington and Lee is not, and never was, a bastion of white supremacism – except in the ways that institutions of higher learning generally have been.

I wonder how that university is dealing with its name, now that white supremacists, like Dylann Ruff, are effectively empowered to determine the meanings of all things Confederate.  It is, to say the least, unseemly to accord such power to the most “deplorable” among us, but such is life in Trumpland.

However, that may be, clear-headed people should remember that what symbols mean is essentially arbitrary and utterly dependent on the understandings of the people who find them meaningful.

Confederate symbols have been used to intimidate African Americans before – not quite to the same extent as nooses and cross burnings, but very nearly so.  Nevertheless, those who maintain that those symbols are being castigated unfairly have a point.  Confederate flags are inexorably intertwined with the history of slavery and its aftermath, but then so too is the American flag – arguably to an even greater extent.

Those who would consign Confederate flags to oblivion, but who shudder at the thought of dishonoring the Stars and Stripes are therefore, to say the least, inconsistent – insofar as their objections to the one, but not the other, arise out of their historical ties to the slave economies of the American South.

“The republic for which it (the American flag) stands” enshrined slavery in its Constitution, just as the Confederacy did.  The connection was implicitly upheld by the Supreme Court in the infamous Dred Scott case just two years before the Civil War began.

The U.S. Constitution even enshrined the so-called three-fifths compromise, according to which, for census purposes, a slave counted for three-fifths of a person.  And during the Civil War itself, even after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, slavery was legal in the five states that that never seceded.  In two of them, it was legal until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.

It is relevant too that there was another crime of comparable of even greater historical magnitude conducted, in its later stages, under the banner of Old Glory: the physical and cultural genocide of the peoples living in the lands European settlers stole.

That crime actually intensified after the Civil War.  To purge public spaces of the symbols, monuments and names of its perpetrators would require the erasure of nearly the entirety of American history.

Among the grievances Jefferson listed in The Declaration of Independence to justify secession and armed rebellion was this: that he  “endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

This was not just a gratuitous ethnic slur, ostensibly out of place in an otherwise high-minded document.  It was an acknowledgment of the fact that Britain’s relations with the indigenous peoples of North America were, on the whole, more amicable than the colonists’.

The British — and the French as well – generally had less than honorable reasons for allying, from time to time, with Indian tribes.  Indeed, their relations with indigenous peoples typically had as much to do with European wars as with the exigencies of colonial settlements.  Nevertheless, affected indigenous peoples generally did better under the secessionists’ colonial masters than under the secessionists themselves.

The Confederacy too did less harm to indigenous peoples than their rivals to the North, though, in fairness, it must be said that it was too short-lived to make meaningful comparisons.  On the other hand, before, during, and for many decades after the Civil War, the Union waged wars of extermination against American Indians — with great brutality and to great effect.

These are among the many reasons why it is hard to justify vilifying Confederate symbols while giving their Yankee counterparts a pass.  For native peoples especially, it is, or ought to be, especially hard.

But exceptional circumstances aside, vilifying symbols is pointless.  If ever there was a time for what Gore Vidal called “the United States of Amnesia” to live up to its name, this is it.

Learning about the past is crucial if we are not to repeat it; and perhaps, as William Faulkner put it, in this case, “the past is not dead; it’s not even past.”  But fighting over its symbols is pointless, except insofar as those symbols have become vested with new meanings that pertain to struggles raging in the here and now.

A half century ago, as the Civil Rights movement gave way to a struggle for black liberation, and the class-consciousness of the American contingent of “the wretched of the earth” was more acute than at any time in living memory, the Black Panthers and Young Lords were able to make common cause with the Young Patriots, and no one would have thought to mistake, for example, the Band’s song, “The Night They Burned Old Dixie Down” for a racist anthem.  Monuments to Confederate leaders and prominent slaveholders were seldom, if ever, contested either; they were left to age in place.

It is not that people knew less then than they know now; quite to the contrary, they were wiser and understood more – and did politics in a better space.   Had Webb flourished and Trump floundered, we might currently be in a latter-day version of that space again.

For now, though, all we can do is let the current flare up of anti-Confederate animus run its course, supporting it as necessary, criticizing it whenever that would be helpful, and, the sooner the better, getting past it and onto more constructive ground.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).