In an earlier post, I pointed out, as of course, you knew, that a symbol has no necessary relation to its referent. I rhetorically asserted that “glorphat” symbolizes “water” for me.
As for glorphat or, indeed, water, eau, agua, and so on, and I’m sure you got my point, we have the case that anyone can announce, or not, that this or that symbolizes something for him. Society, however, has mechanisms in place to arrive a common meanings for symbols that enable their use in the most general or specific forms of communication. These symbols have meanings that obtain within communicating groups. Thus, because the relation between symbol and object is arbitrary, we have swastikas in Hinduism and Germany during the Nazi era.
In the case of the various Confederate flags, the men who designed and proclaimed them, and their friends and enemies, knew just what they symbolized. The Southern whites were not ashamed of their cause, white supremacy and the preservation and spread of an economic and social system based upon Negro slavery. They weren’t ashamed because they believed this cause to be right and just, and ordained by God. Those Southerners saw their flags, proclaiming white supremacy, as a means to build solidarity among themselves, to express their defiance of the Northerners, to advertise their values to the world, and to intimidate the slaves.
Consider Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. He honored the soldiers of the US Army who fought and died their, not just because they were brave, but because their cause was important and just. To have only pointed to their courage without mentioning their cause would have deprived their lives and deaths of meaning.
Those today who choose to honor their Southern white ancestors while denying that those men fought and died for a cause empty their ancestors’s lives of meaning and significance. They are trying to change history, not those who think today’s American governments should not be honoring the white supremacists who tried to destroy by force the American government.
Today’s open white racists know correctly the meaning of the Confederate flags. That is why decent church-going white people waved Confederate flags along the path of the Selma March for voting rights and why the all white South Carolina government decided to fly the battle flag over its Capital at that time. They proclaimed their opposition to the idea that black people could and should be full and equal citizens of our democracy. The white high school students who want to wear Confederate regalia are merely ignorant and their teachers are trying to educate them, not just about history, but about decent, courteous behavior towards all parts of society.
To have only pointed to their courage without mentioning their cause would have deprived their lives and deaths of meaning.
This is the crucial point, in my view. Courage and nobility can exist outside a noble and valuable cause.
I grant as I said earlier in this discussion that it is logically possible for someone to adopt a private meaning for a well-known symbol that already has a well-known public meaning, and that it is logically possible to wish to honor an ancestor who was hung as a horse thief. Perhaps he was kind to his dog. But this is not what those who chose to honor their Confederate ancestors are doing.
Although they know perfectly well, that these days it is not politic to admit to agreeing with the motives of those who sought to destroy the United States government to preserve and extend the economic system based upon slavery of black Africans, they also know that to pretend to honor their ancestors only for their courage and supposed nobility without reference to their ancestors’ cause, the reasons their ancestors displayed that courage, deprives their ancestors’ lives and deaths of meaning. They are not saying “Our ancestors’ meaningless lives were, nevertheless, noble and brave.”
It is key to keep in mind just who those who chose to celebrate their heritage are thinking about when they talk about Southern heritage. They are talking about Southern white people. At the time of the Civil War, Florida’s population was about 140,000, of whom about 90,000 were white people and 50,000 were black slaves. When the Daughters of the Confederacy put up that monument now in front of the County Court’s administration building honoring Confederate soldiers, their picture of Floridians or Southerners, or “we” or “our” did not include those 50,000 black Floridians. Nor did it include the thousands of Floridians who fought for the Union, including more than a thousand former black slaves. Why weren’t the Daughters, and their friends and supporters, such as the all-white County Commissioners, thinking about honoring those warriors for their nobility and courage? I think I know the answer to this question. What do you think it is?
I’ve been watching the rebroadcast of Ken Burns’ excellent Civil War documentary on public TV. One of the fine historians who speaks, with authority and charm, is Shelby Foote, a southern novelist who wrote a monumental, and good, three volume history of the Civil War. When he counts the cost of the war, he sees the hundreds of thousands of white people, North and South, but he doesn’t count the cost of continuing slavery in dead black people. It’s not obvious as he does this. He doesn’t say that he’s not counting them. He just doesn’t mention the cost of the pre-Civil War system.
To read a revealing and powerful interview with Shelby Foote, see this Atlantic essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates. This is well-worth reading.