There’s a house in my town that prominently flies the confederate battle flag on a flagpole in the middle of the front yard.
Now, that’s not something you see every day in northern Virginia. Sure, seemingly every highway here is named after Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, or Robert E. Lee. And yeah, many of the high school mascots are still “Rebels.” But all that stuff… is a vestige of a different time, remaining because of inertia more than ideology. And yeah, we’re technically in the south, but most of the people here weren’t born in the south and it’s hard to imagine too many hardcore southern nationalists living among the sea of government employees in the congressional district with the highest median income in the country. If there really is a hotbed of southern nationalism here, it’s almost certainly the I’m-a-history-buff-and-I-love-reading-about-the-civil-war variety. More Confederates in the Attic than Wallace ’68 bumperstickers.
All the other times in my life that I’ve encountered the CBF, it’s been much more predictable, or at least fit a stereotype: as a sticker on the back of a beat-up old pickup truck with Texas plates, or on the front of a ratty t-shirt being worn by what appears to be a poor and uneducated young man. Seeing it on a majestic flagpole rising off a well-manicured lawn in front of a house that probably costs $700,000, well, that’s just totally different. It’s like looking into part of America’s past.
You’d be surprised at how seeing this house affects you. Every time I drive by that house, I stare at the flag. It’s eerie. It’s unsettling. It’s a little bit scary — you get the slightest sensation of what it must have been like when most of the money and power in the south was in the hands of segregationists and the state government was an active participant in the promotion of racial inequality.
An endless assortment of questions always run through my head: what do the people who live there look like? Why are they flying the flag? Are they segregationists? Did they lose ancestors in the war? Are they hoping the South rises again? Do their neighbors talk to them? Will they harass me if they find out I was born in the North? Who do they vote for in national elections? Do they still hate the Republican party? Do they have a serious political ideology? If so, what is it? Are they tea party supporters?
So yesterday (Memorial Day), my daughter and I were driving across town. And we turned down the street with the house that flies the CBF and I saw the flag. And then I saw something else: the driveway of the house was lined in small American flags.
Yes. American flags. Stars and Stripes.
And I tell you I have not seen a more odd political sight first-hand in my entire life. I wish I had my camera with me. And I wish someone caught the look on my face.
Now, I’m no expert on the role the confederate battle flag plays in modern southern nationalism. The degree to which the flag is an issue in seemingly every Virginia governor’s race is always surprising to me — for the number of confederate flags you actually see (very, very few) around the state, the polling is decidedly mixed on what people here think of it. I usually chalk that up to some (admittedly simplified and stereotyped) combination of (a) a lot of rednecks down in the southwest part of the state; (b) a lot of other people reacting defensively and aggressively to more general attacks on southern-ness; and (c) the fact that just one generation ago, the flag wasn’t nearly as taboo, even up here in the DC suburbs. It’s like the taboo of the flag has become strong enough to bury the symbol, but not necessarily the attitude.
And, hey, maybe it’s not that odd to see the CBF next to the Stars and Stripes these days. But it’s pretty hard to come up with a consistent political ideology that would have someone fly the CBF at their house year-round, and then plant American flags on Memorial Day. You can come up with lots of reductionist explanations (e.g. it’s just historical ignorance combined with racist nationalism) or even moderately benign ones (e.g. they’re just run of the mill anti-government conservatives who want to stick it to their PC liberal neighbors), but it really got me thinking about the relationship between southern nationalism and American patriotism.
I spent the better part of the rest of the day thinking it through. There’s the obvious modern demographic overlap of conservatism, conspicuous patriotism, and the South — I would bet you’re much more likely to be overtly patriotic if your grandparents were against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But that just raises the broader question: when did the southern ideology take on a nationalist character? By 1900? By 1960? Later? Earlier?
I suppose it’s possible that even the civil war era southerners were ardent American nationalists. They did believe they were upholding the true Constitution; they did send a disproportionate number of their sons to West Point, even in the decade leading up to secession; and most historical accounts of the South Carolina secession convention include descriptions of tears in the eyes of many of the ‘yea’ voters. Certainly, Calhounism understood a southern ideology that was compatible with American nationalism. But it wasn’t the American nationalism we understand today; the second party system hinged on a fulcrum in which the Democrats were decidedly localist and the Whigs decidedly nationalist. And the Democratic position was both drawn from and constitutive of the southern ideology. Which is to say that the origins of that flag were born of an ideology that raised state flags above the national flag, and often spit on the latter when it was perceived to have trampled on the former.
And all that was before the war began. There’s nothing I’ve read of the war that makes me think southern nationalism became more compatible with American patriotism after the bodies started falling. If anything, the opposite is true: southern nationalism became stronger after the guns started blazing. To wit: the secession conventions were largely tepid affairs or outright defeats for the secessionists prior to April 1861; enthusiasm in Virginia itself was so weak that secession was trounced at the polls the first time around; it was only after Sumpter that public opinion in the Old Dominion came around and Virginia joined the southern nation.
Of course, 150 years is a long time. And flags can change meanings. I guess you do have the Klan parades in the 1920′s that may heavy use of the American flag. But that’s tempered by the nationalization of the Klan at the time; they weren’t exactly a southern-dominated institution at the point of their march on Washington; they were a national nativist organization. I don’t recall seeing Klan photos from the 19th century or from the civil rights era in which they marched with both flags, but perhaps they did. But if they did, that just puts the contradiction farther back into the past, and makes the blurring of the CBF and American Patriotism that much older. And the mid-20th century resurrection of the flag seems entirely motivated by the original political ends the flag stood for — maintaining a sectional political order in the face of a national majority that was becoming increasingly hostile to it as an immoral institution. So that hardly changed.
Again, I’m no expert on the modern southern nationalism or the CBF. Maybe I’m missing something. But my tentative take is that the house in my town has found a way to infuriate the entire political spectrum circa 1864 — from Sumner and Douglas to Seward and Lincoln to Buchanan and McClellan to Davis and Stephens. And that’s not easy to do.