Those demanding that South Carolina remove its Confederate flag in response to the Charleston shooting generally argue that the Confederate flag is objectively, necessarily a symbol of racism. That isn’t just one thing the flag can possibly convey, and the subjective intention of those flying the flag doesn’t matter. The Confederate flag is a symbol of slavery, these people say, because the Civil War was about slavery. The lack of ambiguity is central to most of the arguments for stamping out the Confederate flag, and to the uncompromising stridency of those who take that stand. If you’re telling a region of the country that they are morally obligated to reject the flag of the army that fought a great, central war in its history, there is no room for ambiguity.
Now, there are various ways one might describe what a war is about. For instance, the Trojan War was about who would control Helen of Troy, but it was also about whether Troy would be conquered or saved; World War I was variously about making the world safe for democracy, recovering Alsace-Loraine, preventing Germany’s encirclement, Wilson’s Fourteen Points, competition of empires, avenging the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, defending the motherland, defending the fatherland, saving Belgium, preserving the balance of power and all sorts of things. World War II was about both realist national security considerations and freedom versus tyranny. One could describe the Cold War was about communism versus capitalism, freedom versus tyranny, mutually assured destruction, spheres of influence, resisting Soviet expansion, and so forth; the Korean War was about the Cold War (so everything in the previous sentence), plus defending the UN and resisting aggression; the Vietnam War about countless things.
Similarly, one might describe the Civil War as being state versus federal sovereignty, the effort to save (or secede from) the union, a war to defend (or destroy) slavery, or simply an effort to fight off an invading army from the north.
So what does it mean to say a war was about something, or that it had a certain objective meaning? To me, it’s obvious: a war is about the thing the sides are fighting over. If one side wins, they get something, and if they don’t, they don’t get it; that’s why they’re fighting. We don’t have to look at anybody’s subjective motivations, or why they want the thing.
On this understanding, the Civil War was about whether the Southern states would secede or be under the jurisdiction of the United States federal government headquartered in Washington, D.C. It was about secession, in other words, and the Union’s campaign to reverse secession. Then, after the Emancipation Proclamation, it was also about slavery.
But the “war was about slavery” people usually don’t cite the Emancipation Proclamation as evidence. They don’t want to make a humanitarian intervention argument (the North was justified in invading sovereign states to end the inhuman institution of slavery.) Rather, they want it to be the case that secession was by itself illegitimate.
Matthew Yglesias at Vox, in explicitly arguing that there should be no respect or recognition for those who fought for the Confederacy, links to a Vox piece arguing that the Civil War was about slavery. What this evidence really supports, though, (like most such arguments) is the proposition that secession was about slavery. Basically, Southerners feared that Lincoln would insure that any states added to the Union be free, which would bring about an eventual end to slavery.
But this is an argument about subjective intentions, which will vary from person to person. If South Carolina had its way, it would have seceded in the 1830s over tariffs, and Lincoln was a backer of economic policies the South hated. You can go and make a proof about the most prevalent mindset of Southern decision-makerse in 1860, but where does that get you? The whole thing driving moral fervor against the Confederate flag is that it objectively means something horrible, regardless of the subjective intentions of those flying it.
Moreover, treating slavery as responsible for the Civil War (on the grounds that secession was about slavery) works only if you assume to begin with that the South was the aggressor, or the party that started the war. In other words, the genuine point of disagreement is the legitimacy of secession, or more narrowly the legitimacy of the federal government’s stopping secession through military invasion.
Or to make it more concrete: you’re a Southerner in 1861. The decision to secede has already happened. The Union invades. Do you fight it? You aren’t defending the decision to secede, so the motives there aren’t very relevant. (Remember, we’re talking about the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, not the national flag of the Confederacy.) The question is whether your loyalty is to your state, which seceded, or to the union, because your state entered said union in the 1780s.
So flying a confederate flag doesn’t have to mean an expression of support for slavery; it can mean support for the right to secede, or loyalty to state ahead of United States, or simply the remembrance of a fight against invaders from the North. This might seem obvious, but again , people who demand the removal of the Confederate flag tend to be very insistent that the flag objectively means the defense of slavery, and react with fury to any other possible interpretation. Their stridency comes from the fact that they recognize no moral ambiguity in the Civil War, or the decision by Southerners to fight the Union armies seeking to occupy their states.
Now, what about the American flag? Like the Confederate flag, it flew over a country that practiced slavery. In the Revolutionary War, the British promised freedom to slaves who joined them, so to some small extent they had a humanitarian intervention argument going for them, and American victory meant some of these people’s return to slavery.
When people on the left are feeling nationalistic, they treat the mainstream of American history as basically good (we may have had slavery, but at least we weren’t “created for the express purpose of maintaining slavery”- ideals are more important than actions) while everything detestable is assigned to the fringe of American history, represented by the Confederate flag. When people on the left are feeling anti-nationalistic, they might point to any number of atrocities committed in the name of the American flag, and our founding ideals as hypocritical- actions are more important than ideals.
However, they obviously don’t work themselves to a fever pitch demanding that all American flags be removed, and denouncing as monsters anyone who defends or flies the flag. Imagine the emotional energy it would take to become upset whenever you saw an American flag, or a commemoration of George Washington. Imagine if someone acted and felt like this guy at the Huffington Post about the American flag:
I passed a neighbor’s house [while walking]…I stopped in my tracks and blankly stared until a car honked at me to move out of the way.
This house flies a Confederate flag….
Normally, this would elicit some fleeting contempt and I would go about my day. But with the slayings in Charleston very much on my mind, I found myself getting angry… very angry.
Angry at this person, this ‘neighbor’ of mine. Angry at the culture that permits such blatant hatred.
Humanitarianism alone isn’t sufficient to embolden the protests and vituperation against South Carolina’s Confederate flag; nationalism gives them the kind of front-running confidence they need for these exercises. You don’t see protesters demanding to shut down the FDR memorial because the man interned the Japanese.
Indeed, the man who hates his neighbor for the Confederate flag even said himself that “the savagery of slavery is offensive enough to justify any level of outrage….But what might be the most absurd part of this neo-Confederate ‘heritage’ romanticism is that its advocates are simply glorifying treason.” (His proof is that the firing on Fort Sumter meets the Constitutional definition of treason, which is a good point if you think states still owed loyalty to a union they had seceded from.)
Similarly, Yglesias in his above-mentioned post says “the United States has historically been very unusual in its official commemoration of the leaders of a failed rebellion against the government;” and while the United States has done no such thing, some states and localities of course have. It is this symbol of defiance, the rebellion against federal authority, which seems to upset and energize Yglesias and others at least as much as the idea that the flag is a symbol of slavery.
This emphasis on treason and loyalty to the nation or federal government is, again, why the argument against the Confederate cause never centers on the Emancipation Proclamation- that would imply that the Union’s war was only justified once it was a humanitarian intervention.
In fact, progressives can even become quite enraged at the idea that wars of humanitarian intervention are morally unambiguous, that there are clear good guys and bad guys in such wars. I suppose the human rights violations by Saddam Hussein’s regime were roughly on a par with those of American slavery, if we can quantify these things. Well, here’s a bit of Vox’s review of the film “American Sniper,” about the Iraq War (here they’re not in a nationalistic mood):
[T]he American occupation…alienated Iraqis with its mismanagement of the country… The real story of Iraq’s insurgency is not just one of monstrous al-Qaeda, and it’s not just of a fight between good and evil…
The [American Sniper] narrative sets up the war as a morality play: there are evil terrorists, and Chris Kyle needs to kill them…all of the violence in Iraq is attributed to simple evil, and…Iraq’s millions of citizens are often barely distinguishable from al-Qaeda…The idea that Iraqis could be much else other than terrorists, or that an Iraqi might take up arms for any reason other than to kill Americans, doesn’t really factor in American Sniper’s narrative….[The film presents] the war…as a black-and-white battle against evil al-Qaeda terrorists, when the truth is far murkier…
But the politics of the Iraq war defy the film’s simple…moral framing. American troops were alternately invaders and protectors. They destroyed the Iraqi state (!) and left murderous chaos in its wake…[In] any even remotely honest portrayal, it is impossible to talk about ethics of fighting in Iraq without acknowledging both sides of this moral coin. But American Sniper has the morality of an especially simple superhero movie: our side good, their side bad.
Now, why would one think someone from Virginia or South Carolina should be loyal to the Union and its occupying armies, when their states have seceded from said union? Perhaps the Constitution creating the union of states is more than a contract of convenience between states; perhaps it is an eternal covenant, like marriage. Perhaps the decisions of statesmen in the 1780s are binding for all time, to be venerated.
Pro-union conservatives often agree with this idea. But generally people on the left strongly reject the idea, and certainly almost none of the people on the left who excoriate secession raise a peep when their cohorts ridicule “Constitution worship.” This 2011 article at Salon, strangely, criticizes both veneration of the Constitution and “neo-Confederate ideology.”