Madden: Flags play profound roles, aren’t trivial issue

David Madden
Special to The Black Mountain News

(Editor’s note: This story appeared in The Asheville Citizen-Times on July 26 as a guest commentary.)

Is it possible to write about the Confederate battle flag controversy objectively? I will make an attempt.

The controversy evolves out of a long and complex history of flags in general and of the Confederate battle flag in particular.

Those American citizens who regard the issue as trivial fail to see the profound role of flags as symbols and of symbols per se throughout world history and their special role in war time and in postwar memory.

As we struggle with this serious and disturbing problem, we do well to attempt to understand the dynamics of controversies over flags in general as symbols that stir emotions, imagination and intellect.

A flag is simultaneously a human-made piece of cloth and a human-conceived symbol that embodies in simple form a complex web of associations for all those who follow it and all those who see it fly. It is a symbol of an absolute: a city, a nation, a club, a school, a cause. It may fly at first for a good cause and, when that cause is gone or diminished, it may fly for a bad cause. Some may fly a flag out of deep conviction, and out of deep conviction some may call for its removal. Some fly a flag, others attack the same flag, in ignorance of its original purpose or out of a trivial motivation. Some people are flag-less and consider flags superficial and dangerous as instruments of rabble-rousing. A flag flying in the wind can look so awesome that it has the power almost of flesh and blood, like a living organism that thrives on air and sunlight.

The significance of the cross is an unusually clear example of the power of symbolism. In most wars, each side believes that God favors it. Each side’s flag symbolizes, therefore, not only national but religious conviction, doubling its power to motivate combatants and to inspire long-lasting memorials for both victors and vanquished. Especially in civil wars, defeat intensifies and prolongs feelings of both piety and resentment.

During the Civil Rights movement, the Confederate battle flag symbolized white supremacy. Some Southern state capitols brought the battle flag into renewed prominence by flying it beside the American flag as an expression of defiance of the federal government’s efforts to end segregation.

Feelings about flags in general were expressed during the Vietnam protest era, when some groups burned the American flag; among the outraged were those who also revered the Confederate battle flag.

Then popular culture took up the Confederate battle flag, and it appeared, as did the American flag, as a fashion motif and was exploited commercially in various ways.

Artists used both the American and the Confederate battle flag to express radical ideas and attitudes in works that many Americans found objectionable and set out to censor.

Many African-American groups and individuals, with the support of white groups and individuals, demand removal of the flag from public places. Groups and individuals dedicated to the preservation of Confederate history demand that it remain.

The controversy is inflamed by the fact that most people, on both sides and in the middle, do not seem to know the difference between the battle flag and the Confederate national flag. Clarification has sometimes resulted in acts of compromise, leaving people in the middle relieved, while people at both extremes remain unsatisfied, resentful, restless.

Events of recent weeks have resulted in plans to remove Confederate flags and monuments to private properties. But flags as symbols, by their nature, have a very long and vigorous life. Meanwhile, the flag acts, as it did in the many battles of our fratricidal conflict over 150 years ago, as a rallying point for discussion, debate and action.

One healthy result of this serious and disturbing controversy is that debate results in education about the war itself and clarification of attitudes.

In many towns and cities in the world, hundreds of flags are flying; in states, thousands; in nations many thousands; and in the world perhaps a million are flying now and will continue to fly after you have read the end of this sentence.

David Madden’s new book, “The Tangled Web of the Civil War and Reconstruction,” was published Aug. 5.