Context Is Everything

Pete Trumbore continues with the theme of contextualising the Confederate flag. Professor Peter Trumbore blogs @ Observations / Research / Diversions.

I wrote the other day about the Confederate flag and the renewed controversy over that symbol in the wake of the mass killing by a white supremacist terrorist in Charleston, S.C. I want to revisit the topic briefly to try to make a few points more clear.

I accept the argument that the Confederate flag is a hate symbol, but I want to continue to argue that it is more than just that, and like any other symbol, context is key to our understanding of its meaning. So let me present two visual examples to try to make the point.

The picture at the top of the post is from the Confederate cemetery in Marietta, GA. In this context, marking the grave of a soldier killed in the war, I struggle to read the flag as a hate symbol. I see it here as a recognition of an individual’s sacrifice in a long, brutal struggle, even if we cannot today know the motivation for which he fought and ultimately died. We cannot know whether he was an eager volunteer or an unwilling conscript. All that we can know is that he was one more victim of a war which has defined the American experience in ways positive and negative.

In this context, the flag represents history and memory, not hate. It should continue to fly in such a setting. I see this as akin to and consistent with President Obama’s perfectly reasonable admonition that the Confederate flag belongs in a museum.

The second example, below, is by now a familiar one. It is the Confederate flag flying on the lawn of the South Carolina statehouse, and while all the other flags were lowered to half staff to honor those slain at Emmanuel AME church, by state law this one can never be.

In this context, the symbolism of the Confederate flag is painfully, obviously clear. It is a statement of defiance against racial equality and forced desegregation, and of longing for a past in which one group of humans could legally own another group of human beings. As this excellent article from the The Atlantic makes absolutely unmistakeable, in this context the Confederate flag is a symbol of proud, unabashed racial hatred, bigotry, and white supremacy.

The Confederate flag has no business flying over the offices of any level of government in any state, especially in South Carolina, and especially today. And so I join the voices of those who call for it to come down.

But let it remain where it today belongs. In cemeteries, at war memorials, historic battlefields, and yes, museums. It needs to continue to fly in such contexts to remind us of how far we have come as a people, and how far we still have to go.


  1. Pete,

    context is everything including alibi.

    I like the way you bring the nuance to the fore.

    Yet, a residue from our exchange in the previous article remains: it leaves me wondering how we might respond to the swastika over the graves of those dead German troops, who were not war criminals, but simply died in battle answering the call of the state/nation. The notion does not annoy me in the same way that the Confederate flag on the graves of Confederate dead is ok by you. I am wondering out loud I suppose what the response might be were a swastika to be used as a marker on the grave of some German soldiers.

    Good piece.

  2. I have a modest proposal - bring your confederate flag to a Black Lives Matter protest and explain how "complicated" it all is.

    Sandy Boyer

  3. Peter, you will know better than anyone living in the States, you cannot win this one by appealing to logic, because morons will reduce this to one of emotion, so its one you can never win. There is an example of a moronic logic just above, whose counter to you would only prove that black crowds can lynch just a viciously as white ones.Maybe that's his idea of equality?

  4. PS I wonder which has the more direct incitement to murder, the flag or the Koran?

  5. Anthony, I don't know that I'd have a problem with wartime German flags at a military cemetery, including, I suppose, a swastika. I've never been to see any of the WWII cemeteries, so I can't say what flies there. I'd be curious to know.

    Sandy, that's what I mean by context. In the setting you describe a Confederate flag could only be there to insult and incite. Only a racist looking to start trouble would do as you suggest. But, as I argued, in war cemeteries, at monuments, and battlefields and historic sites, I don't have a problem.

    Removing these symbols, or any emblems that make us uncomfortable, does nothing to change the attitudes that many claim they represent. If anything, it drives them underground where they further fester. Has the banning of swastikas or other Nazi imagery cured Europe of fascism, or discouraged the neo-Nazi far right, especially in eastern Germany? Not as far as I can tell.

    I think we walk a dangerously slippery slope when we venture into censorship in response to social problems we're afraid to tackle head in earnest. As I said in my first post, I've no innate love for that particular flag. But I'm not naive enough to assume that everyone who does is an unreconstructed racist.

    The Confederate flag is embedded in white Southern identity in the very same way the Union flag is embedded in Loyalist identity in Northern Ireland. But the flags themselves, are not the problematic aspects of those identities. Getting rid of them won't make anyone more tolerant or accepting.

  6. Pete,

    it is much more difficult that the comment by Sandy would appear to suggest. I think it is the type of issue that is shaped by how strongly we feel rather than how logically we feel. Because a person dies for something does not make the cause for which they die right. But it seems wrong in my view to prohibit an expression of the reasons a person died. And if we were to ban the swastika from the graves of German dead would we next ban it from being inscribed in headstones? And in that sense it is much easier to grasp it as a censorship issue.

  7. Agreed. Otherwise decent people fight, and die, for all kinds of horrible, unjust, immoral reasons. Honoring their memory does not equal honoring the cause for which they ultimately died.