Conversation with a Neo-Confederate
We spent the first week of July 2015 in South Carolina (Hilton Head Island, to be precise), just as we’ve done each of the last nine years or so. This year, however, was unique in that during our visit, South Carolina was, in some sense, the center of the American socio-political universe as discussions on the appropriateness of flying the Confederate battle flag over the state capitol and, more generally, the meaning of the Confederate battle flag, became major issues and touch points for larger discussions of race relations, hate crimes, heritage, and history. In fact, on our drive home from Hilton Head, we passed Columbia (the state capitol) at almost the exact time that the Confederate battle flag was being lowered; alas, I could not convince my family that it was a historical event for which a brief detour was warranted.
But it was a discussion at the beginning of our stay in South Carolina about which I want to write, though, as you’ll see, that discussion was tied up in just the sorts of issues and topics that I’ve described above.
On the evening of July 3, I posted several semi-snarky, semi-serious tweets (hey, you know me, right?):
I'm Vacationing in South Carolina. Does the state celebrate July 4? Will I be arrested for waving an American - not a Confederate - flag?
Quick note: We will not patronize any restaurant or business in @hiltonheadsc that displays a Confederate treason flag.
The handle (@hiltonheadsc) in my second tweet is the Hilton Head Island Visitor & Convention Bureau. Anyway, shortly after I posted the second tweet, I received a response from Kenny Anderson (@KennyECU). I’m not sure how he came across my tweet; he doesn’t follow me and I didn’t use a hashtag (so I suppose he was looking for terms like “Confederate” and “flag”, but who knows…). Before I share Anderson’s response, let me first share with you his profile description and avatar:
I suspect that most of you are, as I was, unfamiliar with either the badge Anderson uses for his Avatar or the organization that it represents: The Sons of Confederate Veterans. If you were to read the organization’s mission statement, it would tell you that:
The citizen-soldiers who fought for the Confederacy personified the best qualities of America. The preservation of liberty and freedom was the motivating factor in the South's decision to fight the Second American Revolution. The tenacity with which Confederate soldiers fought underscored their belief in the rights guaranteed by the Constitution. These attributes are the underpinning of our democratic society and represent the foundation on which this nation was built.
Today, the Sons of Confederate Veterans is preserving the history and legacy of these heroes so that future generations can understand the motives that animated the Southern Cause.
Notice anything odd about that mission statement? Like the lack of any reference to slavery? Or the notion that they were fighting to “preserve” freedom (i.e., the “freedom” to own slaves…)? Or maybe the whole notion of fighting for rights guaranteed by the Constitution; after all, nothing says “fighting for rights guaranteed by the Constitution” like seceding from the country governed by that Constitution, right?
And, while the Sons of Confederate Veterans does not necessarily appear to be a racist or hate-based organization, the Southern Poverty Law Center has documented the crossover between the leaders of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and membership in more traditional hate groups like the Council of Conservative Citizens and League of the South (which advocates secession, among other positions).* Moreover, as the Southern Poverty Law Center noted in a 2006 article, much of the leadership of the Sons of Confederate Voters had been replaced with those who supported a more racist approach for the organization.
But I knew none of this as I started my dialogue with Anderson.
Here was his response to my tweet about refusing to patronize businesses that flew a Confederate flag (to make reading this easier, I’ve omitted Twitter handles, including the occasional inclusion of the handle for the Hilton Head Island Visitor & Convention Bureau except where important to the context):
Anderson (7:25pm): If they fly the Confederate Flag and you don't like it, they don't want your business and won't miss it.
I was in the mood for a little Twitter fun, so I decided to engage (yeah, I know, I know…). My daughter, with whom I was playing a board game at the time, became a bit of a participant, wanting to read each response from Anderson and often helping me think out my reply. The snark runs strong in her. It was the first time that I’ve engaged in one of these sorts of Twitter discussions relating to serious subjects that one of my kids was both interested in and at least somewhat knowledgeable about. So that made things fun. Anyway, on with the discussion:
Me (7:32pm): Your profile says you're a patriot. Of which country? The one that fought to keep slavery … and lost?
Anderson (7:39pm): Your profile says you should understand the danger of persecuting a group of any kind for any reason. Patriots understand that.
If you’re wondering, my profile says: “Married. 2 kids. Lawyer. Past-president Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council. Past chair Indiana Equality. Zionist. Tweets reflect personal opinions.”
Me (8:33pm): Persecuting a group? Really? Sorry, but criticizing those who support symbols of racism & treason is hardly persecution.
Me (8:34pm): Unlike those symbols, I don't advocate violence. I advocate for changed minds that are respectful of diversity.
Anderson (8:37pm): Your bigotry is showing. Perhaps I hit a nerve? Again, you should know better, clearly you don't.
Me (8:49pm): My bigotry? Do you do stand up comedy? Fine. I'll admit that I'm opposed to racists who support slavery & treason. Feel better?
Me (8:56pm): You see, I take stands against noxious ideas, especially ones that involve violence & racism, not against people based on traits.
Me (8:58pm): [posted broadly, not just to Anderson] Troll on Twitter arguing my stand against Confederate treason & racism is a form of bigotry. He played the "Jews should know better" card.
Anderson (8:59pm): I always find it amusing when Liberals can't see their own bigotry and hypocrisy. What other stereotypes do you support?
Hmm. I wonder how he deduced that I’m a liberal? Could it be because I’m Jewish? Or maybe he researched Indiana Equality to discover that it is a gay rights advocacy group. But last I checked, neither being Jewish nor in favor of gay rights are reserved exclusively for liberals. I decided not to respond directly to either the implicit “Jews know better” or “liberals are bigots” claims and, instead, decided to poke him a bit more.
Me (9:07pm): So which comedy club are you at this weekend? You seem like a funny guy. Delusional, but funny.
Anderson (9:11pm): You can't get out of the way of your own hypocrisy. Sad really and nothing funny about it. Spend your vacation $ elsewhere.
Me (9:12pm): So are you a fan of the Confederacy? Which part? The treason or the slavery?
Me (9:16pm): [Tweet directed to Hilton Head Island Visitor & Convention Bureau] You should know that “patriot” @KennyECU says I should take my money elsewhere because I oppose Confederate treason and racism.
Me (9:17pm): [Tweet directed to Hilton Head Island Visitor & Convention Bureau] Do you support Confederate treason & racism? Should we take our money to places that value diversity & oppose racism?**
Anderson (9:24pm): Wow, you keep reinforcing your own bigotry, racism and stereotyping of Southerners! Been drinking tonight?
Me (9:32pm): Drinking some Southern sweet tea. Interesting you see bigotry against South; I’m talking about fans of Confederacy.
It seems as if I’m missing a tweet from Anderson at this point in the conversation. I’m not sure if I simply can’t find it in my timeline or archive or if the tweet might have been deleted.
Me (9:38pm): Aha. Now we’re getting somewhere. The Confederate flag is a symbol of treason & racism, not some mythical grand “South”.
Me (9:40pm): Confederate battle flag is a sign of war, not the flag of the treasonous CSA. And it’s [sic] use has been to support racism.
Me (9:42pm): And which part of the Confederacy are you proud of? Slavery or treason. You forgot to answer that earlier.
Anderson (9:43pm): If pointing out your bigotry is getting somewhere, then yes. You think so little of the South, take your vacation $ elsewhere.
Me (9:46pm): I love the South. It’s why I vacation here. But I don’t like symbols of racism & treason no matter where they’re used.
Anderson (9:46pm): I’m most proud of the South that bigots like you don’t live here.
That one really, really confounded my daughter. She was practically spluttering with confused indignation.
Me (9:48pm): What does the flag of treason & racism have to do with the South that you’re proud of?
Anderson (9:51pm): Our Confederate Flag represents neither of those to Southerners. You say you love the South. You know nothing about the South.
Me (9:54pm): So what does your Battle Flag represent if not the Army of the Confederacy’s fight to keep slavery? Why a treason flag for pride?
Anderson (9:59pm): I bet you think the North went to war to end slavery. You must be bored. Leave now, maybe you’ll be home by sunrise.
Me (10:01pm): You forgot to tell me which comedy club you perform at. And I note you won’t answer my queries about treason & racism.
Anderson (10:12pm): The Confederate Flag does not stand for Treason and Racism to Southerners. You can’t get away from your bigotry?
Me (10:15pm): So the Confederate vets your avatar refers to didn’t commit treason and weren’t fighting to keep people in chains like animals?
Anderson (10:17pm) Name on Confederate that was tried for treason?
Anderson (10:18pm): Read about Lincoln’s real views on race and slavery.
Me (10:22pm): Have you heard of Reconstruction? The idea was to put America back together.
Me (10:23pm): Lincoln’s views were all over the place. Arguments can be made both ways about his views. But Lincoln isn’t the point. Racism is.
Anderson (10:26pm): After so many died and Lincoln’s assassination, if Treason was committed then at least one would have been tried, but none were.
Anderson (10:28pm): Lincoln’s White Supremacist views were held by all of his contemporaries. Even the abolitionists were racist.
Me (10:30pm): So seceding in order to keep slaves & waging war on USA wasn’t treasonous? You might read Art. III Sec. 3 of the Constitution.
Anderson (10:35pm): They Seceded from the Union following the Democratic process. Nothing in the Constitution precluded secession. Not Treason.
Me (10:37pm): You really are a comedian aren’t you? OK. I’m bored. Gonna go play a game with the kids. Have fun with your Lost Cause revisionism.
The next morning…
Anderson (5:40am): Keep being a typical Yankee. Visiting our Southland while criticizing our people. Go home! Deo Vindice
Me (10:00am): [posted broadly, not just to Anderson] My Twitter troll signed out on July 4 by posting the Confederate treason flag & motto. Told me to go home. Fine example of “Southern pride”?
For those who are curious, the Confederate motto Deo Vindice roughly translates to “Under God, Our Vindicator”. I wonder whether Anderson still believes that G-d will “vindicate” the Southern position in favor of secession and war in order to protect the institution of slavery.
Except as indicated, I think that I’ve included all of the tweets in the conversation, though if there were others that I either missed or were deleted (I didn’t delete any of mine), I wouldn’t be too surprised.
So what do you think of the way this discussion went? Do you think I’m a bigot for taking a stand against those who use the Confederate battle flag as their symbol? Here is the definition for “bigot” from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:
a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially : one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance
Does that definition fit my disdain for those who fly the Confederate battle flag or refuse to acknowledge that the Civil War was about slavery? If I advocate for respect for diversity and against intolerance and hate does that make me a bigot toward those who espouse racist ideology? Or is advocacy against a particular ideology not bigotry at all?
Perhaps more importantly, what do you think of Anderson’s claim that the Confederate battle flag doesn’t represent treason or racism to southerners? Notice that he never really answers my question about what the flag does stand for, if not for treason and racism. And note further the way he excuses the treason of those who seceded and then waged war against the United States solely on the basis of the fact that members of the Confederacy were not tried for treason. Note too his efforts to deflect blame or criticism directed at the Confederacy by arguing that Lincoln and abolitionists were racists, too. Does that matter to you?
Look, I’ll acknowledge that the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction are complicated, difficult subjects for which a massive amount of literature has been and continues to be written. In fact, when I go on my (too infrequent) long walks, I’ve been listening to Prof. David W. Blight’s excellent course The Civil War and Reconstruction Era 1845-1877 made available through Yale Open Courses (which I highly recommend). One thing that I believe I can say with complete certainty: The South chose to secede and waged war against the United States to preserve the institution of slavery. Arguing otherwise is counterfactual, but in this day and age, who needs facts?
Furthermore, while some southerners may view the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of history and pride that are completely divorced from slavery and secession, I think that it is also clear that the Confederate battle flag has long been used as a sign of racism and white supremacy. I’m not sure if the refusal to acknowledge that fact is a sort of willful ignorance or cognitive dissonance or if it is indicative of a larger problem (such as refusing to recognize either the continued existence of racism or the negative effects racism can have). But the reliance on Lost Cause ideology, attempts to revise history to erase the real causes of war, and the continued use of a symbol that was used by those who continued to try to subjugate African-Americans (if not kill them) long after the Civil War had ended suggests that there remains a deep cancer in our society tied to the issue of racism and race relations.
Our children need to be taught what happened and why. We can’t allow history to be rewritten so that our children don’t understand the root causes of slavery or the incredibly horrific institution that slavery really was. We Jews are watching Holocaust denial and revisionism come into vogue in some circles; only recently have I become aware of the some sort of revisionism that has been applied to the Civil War and slavery for even longer. The problem is that Holocaust denial is not being taught in our schools (well, not often) the way that Civil War revisionism is. Holocaust denial isn’t celebrated with banners flying across huge swaths of land, but Civil War revisionism seems to have been embraced by many. We need to reclaim the truth of history so that our children and future generations can continue to learn from history’s mistakes and not repeat them.
Whew. I might have gone a bit off topic there. Oh, well.
One final point. As I was proofing this post and checking the links I used, I glanced briefly at Anderson’s Twitter timeline. Imagine my totally lack of surprise to find that he retweeted this image, just a few days ago:
Then there was this tweet from Anderson on August 22:
Yes we should have been cheering for the South. The Founding Fathers country died when Lincoln invaded the South
And Anderson retweeted this delightful thought (which includes numerous photos of Confederate flags):
The best way to honor our Confederate ancestors is to finish the job they started and
#secede, forever this time.
I’ve chosen not to reprint some of the overtly racist tweets from Anderson’s timeline.
So, no, apparently the Confederate battle flag doesn’t represent slavery or treason, but it is stridently defended by those who continue to advocate for secession and rebellion with the Confederate battle flag as one of their principal symbols. Clear as mud.
*While driving through Georgia in early June, I saw this billboard posted by the League of the South:
**Note that the Hilton Head Island Visitor & Convention Bureau never responded to any of these tweets.