Perspective: But what kind of rebel are you?

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Into the great White open,
Covered in muddy goo,
They can’t call their games “Olympics.”
They’re rebels without a clue.

Regular readers of this newspaper are likely familiar with the event formerly known as the Redneck Olympics. Now known as the “Redneck Blank,” after the threat of legal action by the U.S. Olympic Committee forced a name change, the games have continued, with the fifth installment having just occurred at the start of this month. They may no longer be Redneck Olympians, but the wife-carrying, bobbing for pigs’ feet, and mudding continue.

What also continues, of course, is the unapologetic and unironic display of the Confederate battle flag. As a Sun Journal reporter who apparently attended the festival noted the night of Aug. 1, the flag was displayed on vehicles and campsites at the event in Hebron. And multiple festivalgoers unabashedly celebrated the flag. Yes, it’s true that the governments of several Southern states have moved to curtail its display at government buildings and on specialty license plates, most notably in South Carolina where nine Black churchgoers were gunned down by a White racist who had himself displayed the flag proudly. And yes, NASCAR has taken steps to limit displays of the flag at its events. But while these entities seek to disassociate themselves from the flag, at least some in attendance at the “Redneck” event in Hebron seek to publicly attach themselves to it.

And it’s not limited to the festival. Prior to the festival, a Brewer gas station owner made news by putting the flag on display at his business. And I’ve occasionally seen the flag here in town, as have others, at homes and on vehicles. Even though Maine was on the Union side in the Civil War, we have our own Confederate flag supporters here, and they’re loud and proud.

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When asked for their views, several attendees at the Hebron festival dismissed the idea that the Confederate battle flag is a symbol of racism. To them, it’s merely about rebellion, or in some cases, the claim is that it’s about “states’ rights” in the abstract. As one vendor at the Hebron festival said, “What the flag symbolizes is the Civil War, the Southern states fighting for their freedom from the federal government telling them what to do.”

What’s missing from this side of the argument is any serious examination of the cause for which the South was rebelling under that flag. If you’re not going to be an ignorant rebel without a clue (and I hope Tom Petty will forgive my adapting the chorus of his song), you have to ask what exactly the people who flew that flag were rebelling for, and what those Southern states wanted the right to do.

The answer comes into focus when you go back to the documents in which those states laid out their reasons for seceding from the Union. Consider, for instance, Mississippi’s Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union:

“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union…”

“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.” In the face of such plain language, it should be clear that what Southern states (or, more precisely, White leaders of those states) were rebelling against was interference with their ability to continue to hold Blacks as slaves. When Robert E. Lee and his troops fought under that flag, that’s what they fought for.

Also, the Southern concern about “states’ rights” was inconsistent, to say the least. Under the Fugitive Slave Act, Southern states actually called upon federal power to force residents of nonslaveholding states to return slaves who had run away. According to historian Eric Foner, the Act authorized federal “commissioners” to hear cases of accused fugitive slaves and issue orders for their return, and these orders could not be challenged in court. Moreover,

The act included severe civil and criminal penalties for anyone who harbored fugitive slaves or interfered with their capture, as well as for local officials who failed to carry out a commissioner’s order or from whom a fugitive escaped. No local law could interfere with the process.”

Suppose a slave from South Carolina escaped and managed to travel far enough up the Underground Railroad to get to Maine. If a federal commissioner determined that she was property that should be returned to her White owner in the South, then that order would take precedence over any local or state effort to block her return to bondage, and that’s what Southern states wanted at the time. Maine’s right to stop that woman’s return to slavery was not a “states’ right” that was of concern to the states of the Confederacy, thus revealing that “states’ rights” as any principled notion was and is a lie. The right for which General Lee fought, under that flag, was nothing more than the right of Southern states to keep slaves.

And yet some White Mainers fly that flag at the Hebron festival, proudly and without irony, and some even do so here in L/A. The most generous assumption one can make about someone who does this is that he or she is ignorant of the cause for which that flag flew. Of course, the alternative is that they know quite well what that cause was, and they don’t care, or that association actually makes the flag all the more appealing to them. Either way, they say nothing good about themselves when they fly that flag, no matter what they tell themselves.

I hope the rest of us might do our part to keep the real story of this flag alive. Before more kids buy into the lie that the Confederate battle flag is a symbol of race-neutral rebellion, let’s tell them the truth. That flag flew over troops fighting for nothing more than the right to enslave Black people. Anyone who celebrates that flag now is announcing to the world that he or she is either ignorant of that fact, or simply does not care about the suffering of those Black slaves whose prolonged bondage was what those Southern rebels were fighting for.

Michael J. Sargent is a professor of psychology at Bates College.

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