Ph.D. Octopus

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A “100% American” Confederate Flag

with 3 comments

By Wiz

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.)


Written by Peter Wirzbicki

March 4, 2011 at 00:41

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. I think the real historical turning point here is from the late 1870s to the 1890s, when after the end of Reconstruction the government tried desperately to get Southern whites patriotic again — which was hard to do with the memory of Sherman’s march still burning. I suspect these years of ‘National Reconciliation,’ which aren’t studied as such as much as they should be, are behind the appropriation of the Confederate flag to a patriotic/nationalist rhetoric. It culminates with the Spanish-American War, when former Confederate veterans joined their old Union foes on a new battlefield.

    Also, in a contemporary context I’d say that it’s not just white solidarity but also anti-government feeling that casts the Civil War in such a nostalgic light. After all, it’s easy to transfer the blame from “Northerners” or the “Union” to “the federal government.” This would allow Oregonians and Californians to easily identify with the South because they are both anti-government. Add to that the whole move of calling the Civil War the “Second American Revolution,” and the circle is complete with Glenn Beck’s help.


    March 5, 2011 at 14:15

  2. First of all, who ever wrote this clearly has never been to the South nor understands Southern Culture. I was born in California but I was raised in TN and KY, my ancestors (3 Brothers) all fought in the Civil War with the 25th North Carolina Vol. Infantry. You have no idea if this guy has ancestors who fought for the South, and another thing, Lee freed his slaves and ordered Southerns to do the same, some did, some didn’t. But what I would like to point out and something the “Northerns” will never point out, is the fact that there were more slaves in the NORTH than in the south, Yes, you heard it folks. MORE SLAVES IN THE NORTH. Also if you don’t believe me, look up actual historical data and also that the first slave owner in North America was, a Black African man in the state of Virgina. So please do not post biased Yankee bullshit when Lincoln was the one who pushed the South into Civil War, when Fort Sumter was fired upon South Carolina had already broken away peacefully, and a Union fort being on South Carolinan soil was considered a hostile invasion/ occupation force. Thus deeming the firing upon Fort Sumter completely called for, if you don’t believe that, look up when South Carolina broke away from the Union and look with Fort Sumter was fired upon.


    May 21, 2013 at 23:29

  3. “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in anyway the social and political equality of the white and black races – that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything.”

    -Fourth Debate with Stephen A. Douglas at Charleston, Illinois, September 18, 1858 (The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume III, pp. 145-146.)

    “The War is waged by the government of the United States not in the spirit of conquest or subjugation, nor for the purpose of overthrowing or interfering with the rights or institutions of the states, but to defend and protect the Union.”

    -This resolution was passed unanimously by Congress on July 23, 1861.

    “See our present condition—the country engaged in war! Our White men cutting one another’s throats! And then consider what we know to be the truth. But for your race among us there could not be war, although many men engaged on either side do not care for you one way or another. “Why should the people of your race be colonized, and where? Why should they leave this country? This is, perhaps, the first question for proper consideration. You and we are different races. We have between us a broader difference than exists between almost any other two races. Whether it is right or wrong I need not discuss, but this physical difference is a great disadvantage to us both, as I think your race suffer very greatly, many of them by living among us, while ours suffer from your presence. In a word, we suffer on each side. If this be admitted, it affords a reason at least why we should be separated. It is better for both, therefore, to be separated.”

    — Spoken at the White House to a group of black community leaders, August 14th, 1862, from COLLECTED WORKS OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN, Vol 5, page 371.

    “If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it, and if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also so that”

    -Lincoln, (Voices of America, p.138).

    “Do the people of the South really entertain fear that a Republican administration would directly or indirectly interfere with their slaves, or with them about their slaves? If they do, I wish to assure you that once, as a friend, and still I hope not as an enemy, that there is no cause for such fears. The South would be in no more danger in this respect than it was in the days of Washington.”

    -Abraham Lincoln to Alexander Stephens-Vice President of the Confederacy. Springfield, Ills., Dec. 22, 1860. Public and Private Letters of Alexander Stephens, p. 150.


    October 30, 2014 at 22:02

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