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It’s been over a month since the Charleston church massacre and the debate over the Confederate flag continues to scale the virgin peaks of public anger and politico-philosophical absurdity.
“It’s a symbol of White supremacism!” – The Leftists are yelling – incorrectly.
“It’s a symbol of White heritage!” – White people from Oregon, Idaho, Ohio, Wyoming and Michigan are retorting – also incorrectly.
Only a rational (and it would seem, silent) minority correctly identify the confederate flag as being a symbol, not of ‘White America’, but of a limited, poor, neglected, derided (and multiracial) district of America – Dixie, or the ‘South’.
This cultural blanket (although subject to frequent redefinition) is generally said to cover the states of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi (thank you, spell check!), Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, North and South Carolina, Texas, Florida (minus Miami), Kentucky and (occasionally) Missouri. A considerable slice of America, and a very influential force in its history.
Of course, it is no secret that this cultural domain once fought a war to uphold the moral abomination of slavery, and nor is it taboo to acknowledge that the flag under dispute was used as battle regalia in that war. But as times change, so does the meaning of symbols. Over the past 100 years, the Confederate flag has been slowly transformed into a symbol almost devoid of racial connotation. Indeed, before the Charleston massacre so horribly re-politicised it, the Southern Cross was broadly recognised as a symbol of cultural continuity and self-respect, of working class pride in the face of a sneering middle and upper class establishment and media.
That last point needs some detail. How many times have you heard a joke like the following –
Q. “How do you circumcise a Redneck?” A: “Kick his sister in the chin.”
Q: “What’s the last thing you usually hear before a redneck dies?” A: “Hey y’all.. Watch this!”
Q. “How did the redneck die from drinking milk?” A. “The cow fell on him!”
I have heard a hundred similar jokes and I’m an Englishman. One simply cannot avoid them. If you watch the Simpsons, Family Guy, South Park, Friends, the West Wing, Dexter, the Sopranos or any other mainstream US production, you will at some point hear a cruel and bigoted jibe at the ‘South’ and at the disadvantaged folk who reside there.
This bigotry has a long and complicated history. The most disadvantaged sub-region of the South has always been the region of Appalachia – a long broad zone of mountains running up from the Deep South to the southern tip of New York State. For centuries, the denizens of this region were defamed with the most horrible speculation in the developing American press. Indeed, so prevalent was this popular cruelty that it now has the character of a national tradition. The ‘Hillbillies’ (as they have long been known) are said to be habitually incestuous, illiterate, violent, alcoholic and reactionary. Over time the Hillbilly stereotype merged with that of the Redneck, and has since become the singular source of hatred against poor White Americans.
Hatred of poor Whites is the last acceptable prejudice in American life. You can no longer make unkind comments about Blacks, Mexicans and Asians without inviting a storm of condemnation. Poor White have no such protection.
I understand that the Confederate flag has a long and infamous history, chequered with moral whiteness and blackness, heroism and sadism, aspiration and poverty. But it is simple-mined and lazy to imagine only the negative meanings are represented by it today.