Flags on the March!

Inflation – Real and Symbolic

In January, the U.S. Consumer Price Index, generally known as the inflation rate, grew 0.6% for an annualized increase of 7.5%. That’s the highest rise in over 40 years. Though salaries have climbed almost as fast, especially among low-wage workers, the inflation increase has caused a political crisis for Democrats and the Biden administration. If, as seems correct, there’s an inverse ratio between gas prices and electoral success, Congressional Democrats face a drubbing in the 2022 midterms. And if they go down, the burden of preserving the republic will rest upon the hunched back and wobbly convictions of Joe Biden.

There are of course things Biden can do about inflation: For example, he can crack down on price gouging by issuing executive orders to stop it.[1] He can encourage the Department of Justice to initiate anti-trust proceedings against fuel companies, drug companies, internet providers, agricultural commodity suppliers, and large landlords. And he can ask patriotic Americans to do their civic duty by not buying so many things – that will reduce prices too.

But rising consumer prices aren’t the only kind of inflationary challenge that Biden and the Democrats must contend with if they want to prevent a Republican sweep in November and 2024, and a further decline in what Richard Falk calls procedural democracy: “the sanctity of elections as credible expressions of citizen consent.” Each passing year, a growing number of Americans — goaded by profit-driven media, quisling politicians (mostly Republican) and the powerful corporate sector – express support for some version of neo-fascism. It might be the Führerprinzip (Trumpism), lies about election integrity, conspiracy theories about the Covid vaccine, doubt about the crisis of global warming, or bugbears like “critical race theory”, transgender bathrooms, or fetal heartbeats.

One useful measure of the dangerous, rightward parade of a segment of the American electorate, is the change in meaning of flags. Here, another kind of inverse ratio may be invoked: As the majority of the public leans further left in its attitudes about race and gender difference, global warming, inequality, and immigration, the symbolism of our flags shifts further right. Once relatively stable symbols of nation, history, and culture, flags now chart the conservative march of corporate media, the Republican party, extractive industries, the military-industrial-complex, and the cadre-of-the-deluded willing to do their political bidding.

Take the Confederate Flag. Please

 

Flying the Confederate Flag used to mean you believed in the “Lost Cause” — the idea that the South seceded from the Union to protect a unique and independent way of life. Wealthy, conservative whites claimed the ante-bellum South was a place of grace: its women were charming and its men chivalric. Working class whites extolled the courage of “Johnny Reb” and trumpeted a 150-year legacy of pride and toil. Few flag-wavers openly admitted that secession and the Stars and Bars were really about slavery, but they knew it and had guilty consciences to prove it: “Most slaveholders,” they fabulated, “were kind to their slaves,”

These are mostly cliches, I realize, but they’ve been affirmed by experience. Though I grew up in New York City and lived for extended periods in Los Angeles and Chicago, I have visited the South often and now live in Micanopy, a small town in north-central Florida, about 15 miles from Gainesville. My first trip South, apart from a family vacation to Miami, was in the company of my wife, Faye (not her real name) about 40 years ago. (We are long divorced.) Faye grew up in suburban Memphis, in a big, white house with tall columns in the front. In the back was a brick patio with wrought-iron railings where we sometimes sat with her parents in the late

A person sitting at a tableDescription automatically generated

Auric Goldfinger (Gert Fröbe) with Mint Julep, Goldfinger, dir. by Guy Hamilton. Salztman and Broccolli, producers, 1964. Photo: The author.

afternoons drinking Mint Juleps, just like James Bond on the porch of his nemesis Goldfinger’s Kentucky stud farm. A few steps led down to a 20-acre, shaded property with some cows and an old horse fenced off in the distance. There was also a small, run-down cottage inhabited by an elderly Black couple – we’ll call them Jess and Shirley. They came with the property when Faye’s parents bought it; they did light domestic and handy work in lieu of rent. Shirley had also been a nanny for Faye.

This was a common set-up among wealthy Southerners, I was told, and Faye’s parents were more generous than most in not throwing the couple out when they were too old to offer service. Faye was very solicitous toward them. She’d spent many delighted hours in their company when she was small, and they apparently loved her in return. I, who grew up in Forest Hills and never as a child knew a Black person except for the shabbos goy at my synagogue, was in no position to judge the relationship. During our visits, I was both tongue-tied and awed. All three conversed in a rural Tennessee argot that was incomprehensible to me.

Faye’s parents were proud of their southern heritage but never, as far as I remember, hoisted a Confederate flag. That would have been both vulgar and offensive to a Yankee visitor; Faye’s mother called me “the carpetbagger,” but was otherwise nothing but cordial. Displaying the Stars and Bars would have been equally unthinkable (and professional suicide) for Faye in Los Angeles where we lived, but she nevertheless defended the flag as an icon of southern history and pride. When I said, during one of our periodic arguments on the topic, that displaying the Confederate flag was to me like showing a Nazi swastika, she was offended and angry. Faye was certainly no Nazi and no racist either and I apologized. But I still believed what I said about the flag. No doubt there were many enchanting Germans who waved the Nazi flag in the 1930s and ‘40s; that doesn’t change the nature of the regime for which it stood. The conflict might have been one of the things that drove us apart. (My infidelity was another.)

Thirty years later I had another romantic partner from the South, Rosie (again, not her real name.) She was from a suburb of Atlanta and worked closely with lots of Black people in Chicago. Rosie was (is) a veritable campaigner for racial justice and has many Black colleagues. But she had an old T-shirt she loved with a rebel flag on it. She didn’t wear it often, and when she did, it was usually under something else – Chicago is a city of clothing layers. But whenever I saw it, I objected. “How can you wear such a thing? It’s like wearing a swastika!” (You’ll note here my own fixation.) “That’s ridiculous,” she said. “The Confederate flag is just a symbol of Southern pride.” “Pride in what,” I challenged. “Secession? Slavery? Jim Crow?” “No,” she answered snappily and with perfect insincerity, “William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and Zora Neale Hurston.” I knew she never read any of them. She was warmed up now: “Plus Little Richard, Otis Redding and CCR.” “But Credence came from El Cerrito, California,” I corrected. But it didn’t matter. She felt pride in where she came from, and for her, the Confederate flag was a benign symbol of that. Fair enough.

Confederate Flag Meets Swastika

That was about 15 years ago; things are different now. The last two U.S. elections and the rise of the global alt-right have triggered rampant flagflation. Today, if you wave a rebel flag, you’re no longer signaling endorsement of the Lost Cause, or pride in a putative Southern culture of bourbon whiskey, Faulkner, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. You’re openly claiming to be a Trump supporter, a racist and possibly, a Nazi. Confederate flags were prominent on January 6, and have recently appeared at anti-vax, anti-immigrant, QAnon, secessionist trucker protests in Ottawa, Manitoba and Calgary — about as far from the Mason-Dixon line as you can get. They are also increasingly common at neo-Nazi marches in Germany and Eastern Europe. In this respect, however, the meaning of the flag is unchanged from what it was in the early 20th century.

There was great admiration in inter-war Germany for the antebellum South and the Confederacy; Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936) was a bestseller there. Both Hitler and Goebbels loved the movie version with Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh, and screened it for other Nazi luminaries in June 1941, while a million German soldiers invaded Russia. “We will follow this example.” Goebbels said, “and establish a great new social order based on the principle of slavery and inequality.”

Even the Southern Lost Cause myth had its Nazi corollary. The Dolchstosslegende was the idea that Germany’s loss in World War I was not the result of defeat on the battlefield, or of German military leaders suing for peace, but a “stab-in-the-back” by feckless German politicians, especially Jewish and socialist ones. Hitler frequently deployed the alibi, mentioning it in Mein Kampf, and regularly invoking the “November criminals” who supposedly forced the German army to surrender in 1918. The point of the legend — like Donald Trump’s falsehood about the 2020 election, and the lie that the U.S. Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery — was not that it was true, but that it was believable enough to rally a mass of loyalists into an ideologically compliant force.

The Confederate Flag has by now become too fraught for use by any but far-right extremists. The change happened slowly but was apparent by the time Obama was elected president in 2008. Waving a confederate flag no longer suggested affection for Southern history and culture, however construed; it meant hatred for a specific, very public man. Four years later, Gary Rossington, one of the few survivors of the original Skynyrd band, announced he was retiring the flag from their stage performances: “Through the years, people like the KKK and skinheads kinda kidnapped the Dixie or Southern flag from its tradition and the heritage of the soldiers. That’s what it’s all about. We didn’t want…our fans [to think] we agreed with any of the race stuff or any of the bad things.” (Of course, the KKK hadn’t “kidnapped” the flag — they long revered it.) Eight year later, in the months leading up to the 2020 election, somebody regularly drove through Micanopy with a big Confederate flag plastered to the back gate of his pick-up. Not anymore – it’s probably become too extreme for him; it could even be dangerous. In rural Florida, even liberals own guns.

Old Glory

The Confederate flag is still seen in rural Florida – mostly on back roads, and beside “Trump 2024” signs and banners — but it’s become a rare sight. That’s a big difference from a few decades ago when you could animate a long drive in the Deep South by counting the number of confederate flags you saw. What’s taken its place is the American flag, often in combination with a “Blue Lives Matter” flag, a Gadsden flag (“Don’t Tread on Me”), or even a U.S. Marine Corps flag. Those flags now signal approximately what the Confederate flag used to: hostility to racial and gender justice, anti-immigration, and increasingly, anti-Semitism. Today, every flag has marched right – signaling something more conservative than it did before.[2] Including the U.S. flag.

The decline of Old Glory as a symbol of national unity in the face of adversity – such as the pandemic, climate change and attacks upon voting rights – is a palpable harm. But there were intimations of it two generations ago. When I was a teenager during the Vietnam War, me, my parents, brother, and sister were strongly anti-war. I cheered when Muhammad Ali said in 1967: “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet-Cong.” My brother obtained a medical deferment and I registered as a conscientious objector during the last months of the conflict.

But even as war protesters regularly burned U.S. flags, my father persisted in wearing an American flag lapel pin. “Dad, people will think you support Nixon and the war if you wear that thing,” I often remonstrated. (We loathed Nixon.) “It’s my country and my flag,” he’d reply. “It signals my patriotic opposition to the current president.” And he had a legitimate point; it was our country and our flag too. That posture isn’t remotely possible anymore, and it marks a real loss – Biden could use some of that legitimate, critical patriotism today. If my father were alive and wore the flag in the South now, it would mean not only that he was Republican, but that he voted Trump, sanctioned racism, honored the Lost Cause, and sipped Mint Juleps. What a shame – it’s a great drink.

Notes.

1) The fact that corporate profits are up while inventory is also rising indicates a high degree of monopoly or price collusion. However robust sales in January may also account for part of the ongoing increase in profits.

2) For a critical perspective on American flags, left, right and center, see Hannah Higgins, The People’s Flag (forthcoming).

Stephen F. Eisenman is Professor Emeritus of Art History at Northwestern University and the author of Gauguin’s Skirt (Thames and Hudson, 1997), The Abu Ghraib Effect (Reaktion, 2007), The Cry of Nature: Art and the Making of Animal Rights (Reaktion, 2015) and many other books. He is also co-founder of the environmental justice non-profit,  Anthropocene Alliance. He and the artist Sue Coe and now preparing for publication part two of their series for Rotland Press, American Fascism Now.