Thoughts on U.S. Freedom, Oppression, and Flag Symbolism

Jon Stewart

My friend Andrew Joseph Pegoda and I have been engaging in a friendly conversation about the Confederate flag and the best future path for attacking institutional racism in the United States. Andrew, like me, is encouraged by recent efforts to remove the Confederate flag from government buildings, but he fears that this now-ubiquitous national conversation is distracting us from what he describes as “much more serious, much more internalized, much more systematic, much more institutionalized issues.”

Andrew recently wrote a post on his website listing thirteen actions he “would rather see happen than Confederate flags removed,” and in other discussions he suggests that the U.S. flag is also a symbol of enslavement and oppression. Elsewhere I’ve seen arguments from others suggesting that because both symbols convey bad messages of oppression, the question of whether the Confederate flag should come down is moot because the U.S. and Confederate flags at the end of the day are mere fabric. Flags aren’t racist, people are (the “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” argument), and many racists and non-racists alike probably embrace both flags. For years these arguments have been deployed by Confederate apologists in their quest to keep Confederate flags flying in public spaces, so it has been an interesting case of strange political bedfellows to see some commenters on the left employing the same argument to suggest that the Confederate flag debate is a red herring.

I believe Andrew is correct about this nation’s troubled history and agree that we must keep our eyes on the ultimate extinction of institutional racism and white supremacy in the United States, but I think his effort to downplay the importance of lowering the Rebel flag is mistaken. What we’re looking at here is not an “or” situation but a “both/and” situation. We must call for the lowering of the flag at government spaces and the end of racial discrimination, and we can do both at the same time. Furthermore, I also think we can make distinctions between the meaning of the U.S. and Confederate flags, although it is certainly true that adherents to both flags have deployed their symbolism for oppressive purposes.

Andrew’s call to action includes the following initiatives:

  • “Non-white fictional characters featured in legitimate, seriously-considered roles such that [people of color] of all ages are represented in positive ways. Representations matter because they create the impressions people have.”
  • “Serious coverage and respect given to Black History and culture and listening to Black people.”
  • “A recognition of the legacies of enslavement.”

How is the discussion about the Confederate flag’s role in American society a detour from the practical application of these goals? If black people want the Confederate flag down, shouldn’t we listen to that? Wouldn’t the lowering of the Confederate flag be a significant step in recognizing the legacy of slavery and its eventual demise in the United States? If representations matter, then surely what flag(s) we choose to fly can have a strong influence in shaping impressions and perceptions of U.S. society today.

Dylann Roof posed for various pictures in which he waved the Confederate flag and burned the U.S. flag. If the U.S. flag embodies the same principles as the Confederate flag, then why burn one and identify with the other, and why have two flags in the first place if they mean the same thing? The distinction lies in fundamental differences in philosophy over freedom, liberty, and natural rights. As Keith Harris clearly explains about the crux of the Civil War, “the Confederate battle flag few over soldiers who were fighting for a clearly articulated national cause: the preservation of the institution of slavery. The United States did not.”

The United States was conceived under the basic premise that all men were created equally. The interpretation of this ideal has evolved far beyond its original context, and by no means has it been perfectly implemented then or now. But the Confederacy was conceived under a fundamentally different premise: that the world and its people were inherently unequal and that Thomas Jefferson’s claims to the contrary were mistaken. Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens said as much in his infamous “Cornerstone Speech“:

The new [Confederate] constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution[.] African slavery as it exists amongst us [is] the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted…

Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”

William Tappan Thompson, the creator of the second national flag of the Confederacy, stated the following about his design:

Our idea is simply to combine the present battle flag with a pure white standard sheet; our southern cross, blue, on a red field, to take the place on the white flag that is occupied by the blue union in the old United States flag or the St. George’s cross in the British flag. As a people we are fighting to maintain the heaven ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race; a white flag would thus be emblematical of our cause.

Again, if the ideas and symbols embodied in the Confederate flag are exactly the same as those in the United States flag, then why have Americans from the Founding Fathers to the Ferguson protesters consistently rallied to the U.S. flag (and not the Confederate one) as a symbol of freedom and equality?

A partial answer, I think, lies in a popular assumption that the foundational ideals of our country provide a sufficient framework in which to pursue the ends of a more perfect equality. I’d argue that the expansion of those ideals is necessary in an ever-changing nation vastly different from the one created in 1776, but that’s a debate for another time. No such goal is symbolized in the Confederate flag or its constitution. Just look to the creators of those documents for guidance.


6 thoughts on “Thoughts on U.S. Freedom, Oppression, and Flag Symbolism

  1. Hey Nick,

    Thank you for continuing this conversation!

    Here are a few thoughts.

    First of all, I for sure wouldn’t really say that “because both symbols convey bad messages of oppression, the question of whether the Confederate flag should come down is moot because the U.S. and Confederate flags at the end of the day are mere fabric.”

    I just think that given that both flags represent negative things, we need to move carefully, and we need to recognize how the U.S. flag is as problematic as the so-named Confederate flag. Flags AND people can be and are racist. And for sure the Confederate flag has been adopted by Neo-Nazi and similar groups that for sure give that flag a different layer of racism and problems.

    I am shocked (in a good way) and certainly think its positive/encouraging that states are moving so quickly at removing it. But, I don’t want it to stop there.

    And if we listen to Black people about the flag, let’s listen to them about everything else – from the criminal justice system to education to etc etc.

    And for sure, the US has changed in ways, but in actual practice, not so much all the time.

    Gotta go for a bit. More shortly.


    1. Hi Andrew,

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment and for clarifying your position. I am going to make a minor edit to this post to more accurately reflect your position.

      I’ve seen many arguments lately from all sides of the discussion suggesting that a sort of moral equivalency exists between both flags and that both are equally bad. I agree that both represent bad things and are used in oppressive ways, but I have a hard time seeing how one can draw that sort of conclusion given that many of the same people cherish our Constitution as a harbinger of self-evident truths and freedoms.

      I don’t want to stop the discussion here either! Keep going!

      Thanks again for commenting.

      1. Maybe one interesting thing to consider is: why flags are so important in our culture? why do we have flags everywhere? why (at least according to The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion) people on the political Right use and display flags more than others? are flags automatically about suppression, at least to some?

      2. Sorry for just having gotten to this one. As far as flags go, the US flag is often used in protests against women, immigrants, gay people, etc. It’s for sure touchy “comparing” forms of oppression. But, both flags are used for bad. The US flag does have good uses – such as funerals.

      3. “why flags are so important in our culture? why do we have flags everywhere?”

        Fair questions to ask. Flag raising emerged in the United States within the context of warfare, militarism, and being able to identify friends from enemies. Keeping that in mind I’d say that flags for some people are an important way of identifying themselves as patriotic Americans in a pure, tangible way. Those who identify with the flag form bonds within an imagined community with other members who use the flag as a worship piece for practicing their civic religion. Conversely, the flag distinguishes between “us and them” and, as recent discussions about immigration and citizenship indicate, who gets to wave the flag and be a part of “us” is highly contested.

        I don’t think flags are automatically about suppression or freedom. How one feels about a flag is probably tied up largely in one’s understanding of what that flag represents. The U.S. flag is waved by groups opposed to gay rights, women’s rights, etc. etc. but it’s also waved by the same groups seeking redress and acknowledgement of their rights. They can be used for both “good” and “bad” purposes.

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