Watching the current conniption in regard to the Confederate Battle Flag, I’m struck by how quickly we have achieved the Moral Panic Theater portion of the process. Although a significant portion of my family’s history can be traced to this area (my father and grandmother were born less than 40 miles from Mondoville, members of a sort of guttering lamp of southern aristocracy), and although I attended a high school in Kentucky nicknamed the Rebels and a college that boasted Jefferson Davis and John Hunt Morgan among its alumni, I’ve always been glad the Civil War turned out the way it did. And although my ancestors may have fought bravely for what they believed in, I’m glad they lost. And the fact that opponents of the civil rights movement chose the battle flag as a symbol associated it with another deservedly lost cause. I’m glad they lost as well. Even as cynical as I am, I suspect that the vast majority of my fellow Southerners would agree. (Full disclosure — I don’t believe I have any CSA paraphernalia, other than pictures of my ancestors. I’m not ashamed of them — I wasn’t there, after all — but it’s not my thing.)
I don’t hold any particular brief for the various flags associated with the Confederacy, other than as pieces of history — indicators of something that happened. For a lot of other folks, however, the battle flag is a badge of regional and (typically working-)class identity (and occasional general outlawry), and I’m also willing to accept that most if not all of them value it without malice toward the government, just as Boone County High was not advocating a return to an antebellum status quo when it picked its nickname. For that matter, do British metal bands even really hold a position on the works of Hinton Helper?
In any case, I’m glad that there seems to be a move underfoot to retire the battle flag from public life. The Confederacy hasn’t governed this region in 150 years. There is no one living who remembers when it did. Take it down from the capitols; remove it from our state flags.
But things become problematic, I think, when we attempt the cultural purgation that seems to be underway. Because of that whole regional/class thing I mentioned above, the attempt to delete the flag from the popular culture seems much thornier to me. In many cases, the effort seems to function as a sort of moral signaling device — a display of goodthink. Alabama’s third album and the output of Lynyrd Skynyrd, for example, are exactly what they were last week. Dukes of Hazzard toys are no more or less tasteful, whether the car has a flag on it or not. Their goodness or badness — even their moral qualities — are not contingent on the cover design or set decor. Similarly, I doubt anyone bought Mountain Music out of a desire to enslave folks. Indeed, I doubt even the folks clamoring for the obliteration of the flag think that. And at that point, the clamor may easily become mere moral preening.
Racism is a sin. But so is vainglory. As a culture, we should try to make sure that our efforts to combat the first don’t spin into the second. Obsessing over that past is unhealthy — but obsessing about deleting it is merely another form of the same obsession, and no more healthy.