FEATURED | The Flag of their Fathers by Imre Bártfai
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FEATURED | The Flag of their Fathers by Imre Bártfai

By Imre Bártfai

When commenting on the Charleston shooting even Barack Obama felt the need to say something extraordinary. Something, which goes beyond the usual manifestations of solidarity, mourning, and prayers.

He admitted that in most developed countries such things happen rather rarely compared to the US. „Racism, we are not cured of it.”-said he.[1] The events of the last year contributed much to this suspicion. Police brutality against African-Americans which the public couldn’t judge unanimously, all cases being subjects of heavy debates and political partisanship.

Liberal-leaning people claimed most victims of these police actions victims of racism, while conservatives pointed out that some of these victims could have been rightly suspicious fellows, or indeed criminals, who resisted the police, thus provoking themselves the harsh measures of the police officers. This time the case is clear: a racist killed African-Americans.

What happened in Charleston brought up again the air of past not yet forgotten: those times, in which African-Americans effectively weren’t allowed to vote, and counted as second-rank citizens. It took fearless activists, preachers and strong politicians to change that. Many would still argue that it hasn’t been changed entirely.

The problem of racism always pervaded the discussion of American life. Some of the first European intellectuals who visited America in the 19th century like Alexis de Tocqueville or the Hungarian Sandor Farkas Boloni, viewed the new nation with awe. They praised their democracy, the free press and free spirit of enterprise, but wondered on the strange and evil institution of black slavery, which contradicted and degraded so much the vigorous democracy of America. “The contradiction between the majestic theory and the shameful practice was incomprehensible for me!”-wrote Sandor Boloni, the Transylvanian traveler in 1830[2]. German philosopher G. W. F Hegel in the 1820's predicted a future conflict between the South and the North, just as the founding father Madison way earlier.

The conflict happened in the form of civil war but the conflict of races weren't settled. Basically the US. government couldn’t expel the confederate mindset of the former rebel states. Because of this a president has been impeached. However, slavery was abolished on a horrible cost, and the nation contended with it.

After the second world war this issue emerged again: still African-Americans had no vote, still they lived in cultural and social ghettos. The great social upheaval of the post-WW II era corrected some of the issues of open racism, laws like Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act forbade most open forms of racial discrimination and gave legal base for equality between races. However, given the social distance between whites and African-Americans, and some dubious legal practices in the everyday[3], many still hold the view that racism is alive and well in the US.

Confederate Flag raised by US forces during Vietnam War
This brought up the case of “Confederate flag”. This flag, more correctly, the battle flag of Northern Virginia's army became the focus point of this conflict, representing the troubled history of race relations in the States. It became popular for racists only in the 1940’s, and that was the period which made it well-known as a symbol.The Charleston shooter posed with the flag, (and with many other flags[4]) and soon, the flag started to embody the spirit of racism, the tainted spirit of the South. The South never re-imagined itself –they say-and this flag is the symbol of this fact. Intellectuals and politicians started to demand the removal of the flag, among them even conservative people like Mitt Romney, who just repeated his earlier statement. The conservative magazine National Review defended the flag as “a part of what we are”[5] but now the fight seems to be almost decided as Wal-Mart, Amazon and E-bay entered the fray by forbidding the sale of Confederate –themed articles in their shops.  What is the confederate battle flag? A piece of history, a matter of memory for those whose ancestors fought under it? A symbol of racial hatred and oppression? Can a symbol be harmless even in the hands of extremists?

As a matter of fact such issues exist almost everywhere. In the Netherlands the old orange-white-blue flag (prinsenvlag) became the symbol of Dutch nationalism and fascism. In Germany, the Prussian Kriegsmarine (Navy) flag is a frequent guest at right extremist rallies. In Hungary, the Arpad-chevron flag became synonymous with the emerging, powerful far-right party, the Jobbik, which allegedly carries it in remembrance to the Arrow Cross party, Hungary’s WW II era Nazis. Yet, the original Arpad-chevron flag was perhaps the first official flag of Hungary, without the arrow-cross, and with seven lions. When I, a person interested in medieval history look at it I see a medieval flag. Most leftists see the flag of the Arrow Cross Party, or something strangely similar. So, I can understand this situation somewhat.

To many people the Confederate battle flag can be still the flag of their fathers, the memory of past bravery and local patriotism. And a matter of history. But those, whose ancestors were slaves or fought against the Confederacy could never see it that way. To them the flag is still the symbol of the enemy, just as in Gettysburg. Moreover, it is a symbol of the unsolved problems of the present. As such the battle flag carries a burden which no symbol can bear: the bad conscience of a nation.

The tools to solve the under-laying problems are not yet in the hands of people, not even the ideas are ready. The social chasm between the majority of whites and African-Americans, the cultural ingrained prejudice, alienation and bad traditions are yet unsolvable problems. People feel themselves stranded. And because now the problems are heaped on each other, and still the wounds are painful (the slavery of blacks or the defeat and destruction of the South) what people can do and will do is to concentrate on the flag.

I guess the Confederate battle flag will be confined to the rooms of the extremists and to the black market deals. It will be marginalized and put out of the mainstream world of American symbols. (But whether it will be removed from the state flag of Mississippi is still questionable.) Increasingly it will be the mark of the redneck, the political backward. Those, who want to rebel, those who reject liberal democracy, will embrace it all the more. It will be put closer to the Swastika, into a relation which, I think it did not fully deserve. While one of the reasons, perhaps the most important reason, for which the southern states seceded was slavery,[6] the Confederates were hardly the same as the Nazis.

Anyway, whatever we think about this, the removal of the flag alone will solve nothing but may have a good effect as well: it will make it clear without any doubt, that certain ideas are morally and legally unacceptable. That personal memory cannot erase objective past, that what was wrong is wrong today just as then. Confronting the pain that people fought and died heroically for bad reasons and wrong ideas, accepting that your or my ancestor could have been a victim of his times, is the first start of the most needed reconciliation. Americans should never think they are alone in this: Italians, Spanish, Hungarians, Germans, Russians, French struggle with the memory of their civil wars, revolutions and fascist movements, embracing more or less contradictory and inflaming concepts of the past.

Whether this painful lesson will be accepted by the southerners is another matter. Perhaps on the long run.  (According to the historian Alonzo L. Hamby, Truman’s family was radically hostile to the North, because one of his family members, then a teenager boy, was mock hanged by Unionist guerrillas. Truman embraced the patriotism of the present so much though, that he turned away from the family tradition.[7]) But even then, getting too much satisfaction from the removal of a symbol can be dangerous.

Witness today’s right extremists: they rarely speak openly about the Nazis, they rarely show off proudly their symbols. But their heart is unchanged.

[1] http://edition.cnn.com/2015/06/22/politics/barack-obama-n-word-race-relations-marc-maron-interview/
[2] Bölöni Farkas Sándor: Napnyugati utazás, Napló. Helikon, Bp.1982.
[3] See one case for example: http://edition.cnn.com/2015/03/03/politics/justice-report-ferguson-discrimination/
[4] Among them with the flag of Apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia.
[5]See David French’s article: http://www.nationalreview.com/article/420060/confederate-flag-should-stay-charleston-shooting-debate
[6]Secession declarations named slavery as the main issue of the conflict, as this article points out. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/06/22/confederate-flag-racist_n_7639788.html
[7] Alonzo L. Hamby: Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman. Oxford University Press 1995.