Hello from North Haven.
I’ve watched and read coverage of the removal of statues of Confederate icons in New Orleans with interest in the last week. Maine is, as John Linnell puts it in his song, the “world that went south” in a lot of ways, and stars and bars flourish in surprising abundance, decorating cars and occasionally houses. Some Mainers might attribute this to a generally rebellious attitude, a love of country music, or a sense of history. But for many, the imagery brings to mind something much more sinister.
I’m caucasian and Jewish. My ancestors were making a go of it in the Pale of Settlement when the Civil War was raging over here. But I can imagine what seeing images of the Confederacy embraced and exalted by individuals and communities might feel like to someone who does have enslavement in their family history.
I can imagine it because I know what seeing imagery of the atrocity that did impact my family – the Holocaust – does to me, physically and psychologically. When I see a swastika or an iron cross, whether it’s tattooed on someone’s head, scratched into a desk, or spray painted on a wall, I have to assume that the person sporting that tattoo or scribing that graffito means it – they wish I were dead. They do not believe that I should be allowed to be a member of society. They think my Jewish child should die, and they think my husband should be punished for miscegenation. Maybe they just thought it was cool and edgy, or they were angry that day and knew a swastika would get a reaction. The intent doesn’t matter. Seeing Nazi imagery fills me with genuine fear and dread.
Germany gets it. An opinion piece by Brent Staples in the May 22 New York Times reminds us that “After the war, Germany tried to put Nazism back in its box by banning public display of swastikas and other emblems of the Third Reich. Later generations understood that to wear such an insignia was to smear oneself with history’s worst filth.” A German town would not have a statue of an important figure in the Third Reich, no matter how deeply connected the town was to the history of that regime and war. Many Germans have recent ancestors who fought and died in that war, just as many Americans lost relatives in the Civil War. But Germany understands that regardless of the economic conditions that led to Hitler’s rise, there is simply no justification for genocide, and that to publicly display symbols of that genocide is to tacitly continue to endorse it.
The historical and current atrocities committed by our government against enslaved people and their children and children’s children and so on need to be fully acknowledged by every state in the country, and for that to happen, statues of Confederate generals need to keep coming down. Confederate flags must no longer fly at any government buildings. Those who choose to advertise their businesses with the stars and bars, and who choose to display those images should understand the message they’re sending – that they believe slavery was worth fighting for, that lynchings were justified, that segregation was appropriate. That mass incarceration of people of color is justice. That the disproportionate instances of police shootings of people of color is coincidence. Our version of “history’s worst filth.” Their intent – be it to show a love of The Dukes of Hazzard or a devotion to ancestors who fought for the South – doesn’t matter. Arguing about the “true causes” of the Civil War doesn’t matter. Yes, the Civil War is an important part of our history and worthy of deep study and discussion. But there is no way around the fact that it was a war fought because states wanted to be able to determine on their own whether or not owning and abusing other human beings was legally permissible.
Our country’s deep commitment to freedom of speech makes the outright banning of the Confederate flag unlikely, and perhaps unnecessary. If the conversation and teaching around enslavement, the Civil War, and subsequent human rights violations can shift to acknowledge the government’s complicity, and all our cities and states can permanently remove Confederate icons from their literal pedestals, the stigma of racism might finally become stronger than the excitement of being a “rebel”.