A “100% American” Confederate Flag
This article about a Oregon Bus Driver who chose to quit a job– in this economy!– rather than be forced to take down the Confederate Flag that he hung from his car, sums up so many of the absurdities of Civil War memory, modern politics, and modern race.
Ken Webber wears his redneck heart out in the open, for all to see. On his right arm a red, white and blue tattoo depicts his skin ripped open to reveal an American flag and the words “100 percent American.” On his left, the tears reveal a Confederate flag and the words “Pure Redneck.”
So when Webber was told to surrender the Confederate flag that flies from the CB antenna on his pickup truck _ or be suspended from his job driving a school bus in Talent _ the choice was easy.
Webber chose his flag.
The first thing to note, of course is the issue of a tattoo with the words “100% American” next to the symbol of the only organized political movement that almost destroyed America.
The main issue, of course, though is that this guy is living in fucking Oregon! And was born… in California! Why would he possibly feel a political allegiance to the Deep South? But he’s not alone here. I once attended a country fair in a small town in rural Montana, and was shocked to see all the Confederate Flags everywhere. And on a bike ride through the Appalachian part of Kentucky I couldn’t turn my head without seeing a Confederate Flag. These were people whose ancestors almost certainly were Unionists (Kentucky stayed in the Union, and poor whites from hilly areas were particularly pro-Union) who sacrificed and suffered to defend America from treason (i.e. the Confederate Army). And here were their grandchildren waving the flags of their enemy! And often, as in the case of Webber here, they’re emblazoned with some sort of slogan or image emphasizing the sense of embattled rural pride. The actual connection to the Confederacy seems unclear.
There are few symbols in American history with so many meanings as the Confederate Flag, of course. But one thing this story convinced me was that more and more, the Confederate Flag is morphing into some sort of rural white solidarity symbol, devoid of any allegiance to the actual South, yet maintaining its distinct racial politics. Webber seems to be defining his heritage in terms of a set of cultural practices associated with rural white culture: “He and his friends considered themselves ‘backyard rednecks’ growing up. They hunted, fished, roamed the mountains, and drove ATVs in the mud. He dropped out of high school in Phoenix, Ore., but is working toward a degree in juvenile corrections at Rogue Community College.”
In some ways its perfect: the Lost Cause narrative blends so well with the sense of victimhood and resentment that form the backbone of Palinesque Conservatism. Since this solidarity gets defined in cultural terms, it unites millionaires like Sarah Palin and members of the rural working class like Webber, both of whom do things like drive ATVs but don’t, for instance, listen to Ira Glass. Confederate apologetics have always been shot through with this rural nostalgia, threatened by the heartless, urbanized, modern North.
Which also makes sense, since a defining feature of the slave South was its relative inability to combine slavery and urban development. Scholars debate, of course, the degree to which slavery and cities were incompatible. Seth Rockman, for instance, in a fantastic book on Baltimore, sees less contradiction between slavery and urbanism than most. John Ashworth, on the other hand, has argued extensively that the particular nature of class conflict in Southern slave labor relations (specifically running away) made Southerners wary of cities. If nothing else, the fabulous wealth that could be made on plantations certainly retarded the development of industrial towns. For whatever reason, on the eve of the Civil War, the North was far more urbanized than the South was. The only major city to secede was New Orleans, which has always held a fairly unique place in the South.
Point is, there are has long been an association of the South with ruralness. Today, it seems to me, the Confederate imagery has taken over the rural aspect, while ditching the specifically Southern connotations.
Of course, I have no idea whether Webber is personally racist or not (though there is no real question that the Confederate Flag has close ties to racist groups). But this discourse is certainly run through with a sense of embattled white rural resentment. To be fair, I suspect, in the minds of these neo-Confederates, they are not motivated by pathological anti-black sentiment. Rather they see it as a symbol representing them, their friends, and their culture. Which happens to be almost entirely white and stand in political hostility to the organized interests of African-Americans, a fact they never particularly interrogate.
In this context the “100% American” slogan, that Webber had becomes perfectly legible. Like Sarah Palin’s “Real Americans,” the message is obvious: an authentic rural small town America threatened by urban, racially mixed, modernity. Check out this map of the 2008 election to see the political connotations of this all. (On a related note: I’m more and more convinced that the most significant divide in the country is rapidly becoming between town and country.)