A few years back I gave a talk on Ronald Reagan to The Exchange Club in Jonesboro, Arkansas. I was preceded by a couple of civil war reenactors, one of whom solemnly declared that "the civil war was not about slavery." Every head in the room, mine excepted, nodded in agreement. Of course the civil war was about nothing else, but it says something about the South that it should dearly want to deny the ugly truth about the "late unpleasantness" between the states. There is no sentiment in the South anymore to defend either slavery or segregation, but there is surely a desire to defend Southern heritage.
Ryan Lizza of the New Republic has stirred up a lot of sediment by launching an early blow against former Virginia Governor George Allen's bid for the presidency. Lizza's piece is a very interesting, if jaundiced, political biography. Most notably, he makes the case that Allen was interested in the Confederacy long before he was in any sense a southerner. In high school in Palos Verdes, California, Ryan drove around listening to Johnny Cash's Folsum Prison tape in a red mustang with a confederate flag plate on the front. Lizza's article reproduces a picture of Allen with a confederate flag pin on his jacket.
Lizza knows what to make of this.
As a child, Allen tells me, before he even moved to California, he learned about the painful history of the South when his dad would take the kids on long drives from Chicago to New Orleans and other Southern cities for football bowl games. There was one searing memory from those trips he shares with me. "I remember," Allen says, "driving through--somehow, my father was on some back road in Mississippi one time--and we had Illinois license plates. And it was a time when some of the freedom riders had been killed, and somehow we're on this road. And you see a cross burning way off in the fields. I was young at the time. I just remember the sense of urgency as we were driving through the night, a carload of people with Illinois license plates--that this is not necessarily a safe place to be."
Now the pin seemed even worse. Why would a young man with such a sensitive understanding of Southern racial conflict and no Southern heritage wear a Confederate flag in his formal yearbook photo?
Now I have to admit that when a politician tells a tale like this, it sounds a lot like a re-edit of the past. We would all like to think we were savvy and well-meaning when we were in high school. And it puts him on the right side of history. But the assumption that a confederate flag is itself a symbol of racism is simply not true.
I do not now nor have I ever sported a confederate flag on my car or my person. Abraham Lincoln is one of my heroes, something that might get me kicked out of the exchange club were it generally known (and were I a member). But I knew a lot of people who did sport the flag, and I can report that it was not evidence of racism. Among genuine southerners, it was most frequently a simple assertion of pride in a heritage that was frequently trampled upon in the media. More generally it became the flag of people who listened to country music and drove pick up trucks more than red mustangs. That, I think, explains its attraction to the young Allen.
Lizza is quite right to ask questions about the meaning of the flag to a man who wants to be President. Sometimes it does mean racism. But what he in fact reveals is that Allen carries considerably less baggage than, say Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who largely escapes scrutiny owing to the fact that he is a Democrat. Allen's record as governor is nothing to be ashamed of, and that counts more than a flag pin and a bad hair cut when he was in high school.