On March 23, 2015, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Walker v. Sons of Confederate Veterans, in which the Texas chapter of the venerable Sons of Confederate Veterans — members bill themselves as the “oldest hereditary organization for male descendants of Confederate soldiers,” and sound like they’re probably really fun to talk to at parties and stuff — argues that the state of Texas, via the DMV, should be required to issue a vanity license plate proposed by the Sons that happens to prominently feature the Confederate flag (or what they think is the Confederate flag; more on this later). By the way, congratulations to those of you wondering if forcing a state DMV to litigate this matter is definitely a worthwhile and efficient use of public funds and consistent with the idea of small, unobtrusive government. But I digress.
At the risk of perhaps oversimplifying what are probably complicated and nuanced legal issues, the Sons’ argument here is dumb and wrong. While a decision in this case is expected sometime in June, the early read from oral argument is that the justices did not much care for the ideas proffered by the aforementioned best party guests ever, perhaps because said guests’ argument is dumb and wrong. While free speech generally gives you the right to say what you please, no matter how inane (cue Rick Santorum nodding solemnly), the Court seemed to get hung up on the idea that free speech shouldn’t also give you the right to force the government to act as a mouthpiece to promote your viewpoint with the imprimatur of authority behind it (cue gradually more melancholy nodding).
Like many people who blithely display the Confederate flag and subsequently prove themselves to be shockingly naive and/or astoundingly tone-deaf about the message of hate and fear implied in modern displays of said flag, the Sons basically contend, in relevant part, “Something something something history, something something something free speech, something something something [whistles Dixie].” This unfortunately is not a particularly new or original line of argument; outside the context of Walker and the four walls of the Supreme Court, wherever casual flag displays can be found (on faded koozies; at frat parties with profoundly ill-advised themes; on size XXXXL tank tops available for purchase at Sunoco stations all along I-20; on a majority of vehicles that also display Truck Nutz; probably on Truck Nutz themselves; etc.), they are generally defended by inordinately loud, seriously-why-are-you-yelling-right-now arguments that the flag is just a symbol of History, and we want to preserve our Heritage, and, look, why do you hate both History and Heritage?
Well, first, when the relevant history is that of a war that caused 600,000+ Americans to die at the hands of each other, I’m not so into glorifying that. But more fundamentally, the History argument is, objectively speaking, kind of bullshit. Here’s why. I always thought what you and I know as the “Confederate flag” was called the “Stars and Bars.” Turns out that the Stars and Bars is actually some design you’ve never seen before, and it was the official flag that the fledgling Confederacy adopted and proudly waved until they decided they hated it because they realized it looked way, way too much like the Stars and Stripes, which was definitely not the message they were trying to send at that point.
So the brightest minds at the Confederacy then put their heads together and came up with the “Stainless Banner,” an almost all-white flag that featured a variation of what you know as the Confederate flag tucked away in the upper-left corner. This seemed all well and good at first, because it was decidedly not like the Union flag, except then they decided that they hated that, too, when they realized it also looked an awful lot like a white flag of surrender out on the battlefield, which was also not a message they were trying to send at that point. Back to the drawing board.
The third flag, the “Blood-Stained Banner,” was just a Stainless Banner with a red stripe. BFD. By the time it was finally officially rolled out in March of 1865, the Confederacy was getting rolled over, and General Lee would surrender one month later, and shortly thereafter the South would smoothly reintegrate itself into the United States without incident or difficulty (hahaha jk).
So where does the “Confederate flag” come from? Turns out it was a provincial flag adopted by the Army of Northern Virginia for use on the battlefield, because, again, the rebels couldn’t figure out who was who out there. This “Battle Flag” or “Rebel Flag” was never officially adopted as the Confederacy’s flag. It never represented the South. In fact, it probably would have been lost to history if it hadn’t been, you know, picked up way after the fact as a symbol by the resurgent Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups who rallied around their shared opposition to the 20th century civil rights movement. To review: the Battle Flag is much more famous for representing the ideas, beliefs, and actions of some very bad people after the Civil War than for anyone or anything it may have represented during the Civil War. Probably not the kind of history we actually want to get behind.
Second, the heritage that the Battle Flag ostensibly symbolizes is that of a group of people who believed so strongly that slavery was probably A-OK that they decided to secede from the Union and go to war over it (important side note: don’t even think about starting with that “the Civil War was about states’ rights,” War of Northern Aggression, revisionist history bullshit; pretty much all prominent historians agree that slavery was the Civil War’s primary cause; no, I do not mean to imply that all Confederate soldiers were evil and I’m only saying it was the primary motivator underlying the secession debate; please stop shouting; please, you’re making a scene; I cannot with you right now). Even if you allow for some kind of nebulous “Southern Tradition” that is so important that it merits its own symbol, the fact is that the Rebel Flag is now so closely intertwined with the many hate groups who adopted it as a ready-made emblem for their terrible ideas that the flag’s more benign origins are about as relevant as the history of the swastika in ancient South American art or whatnot. This probably isn’t fair to the Battle Flag, which just wanted to fly above the Army of Northern Virginia and not look like the Union flag and otherwise mind its damn own business, but it’s true. Insisting on romanticizing the flag in the name of “heritage” just isn’t going to cut it. Especially not when there are way cooler symbols of Southern heritage and culture out there! More mint juleps and seersucker for everyone.
Also…come on, man. You’re not some amateur Ken Burns history buff out here hanging that flag in your garage to impart to the world your nuanced appreciation for the subtle yet intractable differences between the northern and southern states that eventually bubbled to the surface in a powerful test of whether the grand experiment of forming one nation out of many for the collective good in which all men were truly considered as equals somewhere my high school history teacher is nodding right now could actually work. If you really buy the history and heritage arguments, flying the Rebel Flag is just about the laziest way to show it, particularly given how many better ways there are to celebrate: participating in a reenactment (though trudging around a field in Virginia in wool uniforms in 100 degree weather only to, you know, probably have to lay down in short order and then be dead all afternoon seems like a terrible use of a weekend, but whatever), volunteering at a museum, reading a history book, or literally anything else that won’t, you know, make black people feel really uncomfortable when you pull up next to them at a stoplight.
Alas, all of these flawless, unassailable arguments probably won’t be able to convince everyone. Some people will always fly the Rebel Flag, and that whole First Amendment thing, admittedly, can and should protect them. However, if someone is saying something stupid and inane, e.g., flying said Rebel Flag, the First Amendment also protects your right (duty? no, right, never mind) to point out the stupidity and inanity. You should exercise that right at every opportunity. Meanwhile, this chart should serve as a handy guide to determining if the decision to cop one for yourself is good call or really just serves as shorthand for “I am an insufferable moron.”