I learned something new about political analyst Charlie Cook today. I got a better sense of where he’s coming from.
For me as a white Southerner, born in Louisiana and spending my first 18 years there, the Confederate flag is a complicated issue. I spent much of my childhood wearing a Confederate uniform with a Johnny Reb cap (with the battle flag on the front) and carrying a toy replica of a Civil War rifle, crawling across my backyard in a make-believe battle. From roughly age 7 to 12, I can remember my hometown newspaper, the Shreveport Times, carrying, often on the front page, an “On this day in…” feature with whatever notable Civil War events occurred exactly 100 years before. I can recall seeing the death notices of some of the last of the Confederate soldiers; generally they had been the young drummers of their hometown units. In the 1960s, the Confederate battle flag represented our heritage and our ancestors—and yes, both my wife and I had relatives who fought in the Confederate Army (though none to our knowledge owned, or could have afforded to own, slaves).
But over time, the balance has shifted. That flag has come to represent something different, something that should, as Bush pushed for while he was governor of Florida, move off the flagpoles and into the museums, out of respect for Americans, many of whom are the descendants of slaves, who are just as much citizens as we are. The symbolism shifted from heritage to hate; rather than paying homage to history, the flag came to make the South a prisoner of its history. It is time for the South and conservatives in the region to move on, and allow the Republican Party to move on as well, not hold it prisoner.
Now, first of all, I obviously agree with Cook’s overall point here.
And I am not going to blame a child for playing Civil War games even if they self-identified with the treasonous side that was fighting to preserve human bondage. It’s up to people’s parents to guide them, and we’re all products of our environment.
The problem here is that even with the benefit of retrospect, Cook still thinks that “something shifted” and the symbolism of the Confederate Army came to mean something different from what it had always meant.
This heritage argument has never held any water. I’m a child of the North, and I have ancestors who fought for the Union. I played with Civil War soldiers. But I never called any of that my heritage. Southerners made a decision to pay homage to their shameful past. There wasn’t anything inevitable about that.
It should not have just recently occurred to Charlie Cook that the descendants of slaves are citizens just like he is. Rather, he should have spent the last several decades thanking his lucky stars that we permitted him to be a citizen after his ancestors took up arms against us in the defense of enslaving people. If anyone’s right to citizenship should be in question, it isn’t the offspring of people who were enslaved but the offspring of people who either did the enslaving or, worse, the people who fought on the side of the enslavers despite not owning slaves themselves.
What kind of people allow their son to run around pretending to be a Confederate soldier as if that isn’t one of the most shameful things you could ever be?
The answer is pretty simple. If you can’t see the descendants of slaves as fully human, then it’s easy to whitewash them out of the celebration of your “heritage.”
This has always been a total bullshit mentality, and there have always been people who have been on the other side of this fight trying to affirm the humanity of our black citizens, redress the wrongs that were done to them, and convince people to stop celebrating slave-promoting treason.
Nothing actually shifted. The Confederate Flag has always meant exactly what it means today. And the flag is actually the symbol of an army. Let’s not make this all about the flag. Little Charlie Cook with his “Confederate uniform with a Johnny Reb cap” was doing something even more offensive than waving a flag that many people only dimly understand. He was identifying the Confederate Army as the good guys. You could blame his parents for that, but the problem was so pervasive that you can’t pick on one family or one little boy.
Just rewind the tape and look at the one hundred years between the Confederate surrender at Appomattox and the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Who were the good guys in Louisiana again?
So, yeah, the Republican Party needs to change. But people like Charlie Cook need to go further. The Confederate flag shouldn’t be a “complicated” issue for Cook at all. Not anymore. He’s an adult. What’s offensive today was offensive in the 1950’s and the 1990’s and right up to last week. You don’t get to be proud of slavery and Jim Crow.