Perceptions

“Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It’s certainty.”
Stephen Colbert

The widely held perception is that the American Civil War, also known as The War Between the States, also known as The War for Southern Independence, also known as The War of Northern Aggression, also known as The States War, also known as The Brothers War, began when an ardent secessionist named Edmund Ruffin pulled the lanyard on a cannon aimed at a rocky island fort in Charleston Harbor known as Fort Sumter.

Perceptions are a funny thing.

Let’s talk about Fort Sumter. The United States, viewing the southern states as states in rebellion, naturally held that particular federal outpost in the middle of Charleston Harbor as its sovereign territory. South Carolina, on the other hand, seeing itself as a member state in an independent nation, saw a pile of rocks in the middle of a harbor surrounded on three sides by the coast of South Carolina as rather obviously THEIR territory. If you look at it from their perception, calling Fort Sumter US territory just because federal troops were on it was akin to France claiming Ellis Island because they gave us the Statue of Liberty.

Perception trumps fact.

For instance, during that war, most politicians in the north viewed the act of secession as treason. A state that abandoned the rest of the union was simply a traitorous state in rebellion. In the south, however, secession was viewed as terminating a completely voluntary agreement. The differences in these perceptions are the domain of lawyers. They ended up being settled by cannons, bullets, and bayonets.

Even the perception of when this war started is debatable. In Kansas, the perception was that the war began in 1855 when pro-slavery men from Missouri rode over to Lawrence, where immigrants from Massachusetts were trying to turn Kansas into a free territory, and started shooting. Of course, the Missourians saw this as interference in local politics by obnoxious Easterners.

The actual natives of Kansas, the Pawnee, Osage, and Kiowa tribes, probably had a different perception entirely.

In Virginia, abolitionist John Brown, by actively attempting to arm slaves and start an insurrection, was a traitor and was tried by state law and hanged. In Osawatomie, Kansas, where John Brown and his sons risked life and limb defending the town from Missouri bushwhackers, John Brown is a hero. I’ve seen his statue.

I respect perceptions, even if I don’t agree with them. The hot button of the day is the so called Confederate Flag, also known as the Rebel Flag, also known as the Stars ‘n’ Bars. All three names would confuse your average Confederate States soldier who saw this as their battle flag – an organizational tool to know where to center their formations and behind whom to line up.

And for generations of Americans to follow, that flag is a symbol of the government behind those armies – a government determined to prolong the institution of slavery for both economic and cultural reasons. That perception makes it an absolutely abhorrent symbol, and for those who see it that way, rightly so.

For those who do not share that perception – well, you’re SOL. Political correctness trumps your perceptions and that’s the way of our modern world.

Look, I’m not defending slavery, the Confederate States of America, or the right to wave a flag that deeply offends millions. But I want us to take a close look at perceptions because at the root of all this controversy, the issue ultimately is not what something IS or what it actually MEANS, but what it means to YOU or ME. And I fear we are on the precipice of a level of suppression that we will regret for centuries to come, assuming our people survive that long. (Personally, I’m betting we succumb to a combination of climate change and plate tectonics in the next 500 years, but maybe I’m being pessimistic.)

Here’s my concern: we point to the Confederate Battle Flag as a symbol of treason and the institution of slavery. Insofar as that flag is a symbol of a government that is unavoidably tied to those things that is fair. But what about the good old Stars ‘n’ Stripes? It symbolizes a nation that was created entirely to protest the imposition of a massive 2% tariff by the country that was financially keeping it afloat. This new nation not only included state-approved slavery but also limited voting rights by age, race, and gender, So shouldn’t we view the US flag as an oppressive symbol of racism, ageism, and sexism?

Just saying.

And while we’re at it, let’s include the flags of virtually every other country on earth, most all of which included slavery and blatant gender discrimination at some point in their histories.

I think we have to be extremely careful when we begin defining by law what a person can and can’t say and what symbols they can and can’t display. On a personal level, personal freedoms need to be protected, even if words or symbols are used that offend others. If we make a word or a symbol illegal for a private citizen to use, where will we stop? How thoroughly will we apply the standard? If we ban every flag that ever represented a nation that ever supported slavery or racial discrimination by law or hate … there will be a lot of empty poles in front of the UN Building.

I want to be absolutely clear in what I am about to say: I am not defending flying a specific flag. Frankly, I think a great many people who display that flag do so with a deeply rooted but badly misguided dedication to a region of the country and they never take into consideration what that symbol says ABOUT the region they love. Yes, the flag is a piece of your Southern heritage. But it is a violent, ugly, hate-filled portion of that heritage that it symbolizes and do you REALLY want to use that symbol to celebrate the culture that gave us Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, and the Allman Brothers Band?

I, for one, would rather leave it in the past where it can serve as a solemn reminder of the noble but ultimately horrible sacrifices men make on behalf of principles – some of which should never have been defended at all.

Yes, the history of the South needs to be celebrated and remembered for the myriad of contributions it has given to this great nation. That symbol – the Confederate Battle Flag – needs to be remembered for its role in shaping our history and what it meant to hundreds of thousands of Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice to define the country we are.

But it does not need to be flown over a modern government building. To do so expresses a governmental tolerance of the absolutely intolerable and that cannot be allowed to happen.

At the same time, we cannot simply villainize every individual who ever held, waved, revered or supported that flag because we, right now, cannot look into the individual heart and mind and declare what that symbol meant to them – what their perception was.

One of my personal heroes, Ulysses S. Grant, forbade his soldiers from cheering after Robert E. Lee surrendered the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Grant made the observation that he didn’t feel right “celebrating the downfall of an enemy who had fought so valiantly and for so long for their cause.”

And he went on to add, “Even though I felt that cause to be the worst man ever fought for.”

Respect perception. Please.