28 October 2013

Confederate Flags and Cluelessness Revisited at the University of Rochester.

I recently posted here on the cluelessness of white boys displaying the confederate battle flag as though it were no big deal to anyone else. The post was prompted by an ongoing incident at the University where I teach. A student displayed the confederate flag in his frat house** residence hall window and, when compelled to remove it, predictably enough bellowed about the College infringing his free speech rights. The local Gannett newspaper, The Democrat & Chronicle, ran a report on the dispute last week and that has been picked up at outlets from Inside Higher Ed, to USA Today to The Daily Mail. And, of course, there are the inimitable propagandists at Fox News. This last report prompted the UR College Republicans to proclaim their support for "freedom" on Twitter:


I do not follow the UR CR (or anyone else) on Twitter. This was sent to me by a recent alumnus. Make that an irritated recent alumnus. But a couple of questions arise in all this.

First, why is the Confederate flag especially troubling to minority (and other) students on a college campus? Well, because from the late 1950s through the late 1960s the flag was a constant symbol of white resistance to integration of both public elementary and secondary schools as well as of Colleges and Universities. Often, of course, those protests were accompanied by rioting and violence against black students. Here are images easily discoverable on the web:




These press photos depict white students - usually, you'll note, white boys - acting out at the universities of Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama respectively. In short, the confederate flag is indeed a symbol of the "Southern identity" and that identity is thoroughly inflected by racism. It is disingenuous to suggest otherwise.

Second, what does "free speech" and its infringement have to do with all this? I think the fraternity boy** student in question at UofR should be allowed to display any symbol of his identity he wishes. But I think too that he ought to be prepared for others to talk back and to talk back frankly.Why? Because this is not a matter of libertarian self-expression, but of democratic self-governance. In short, the principle of free speech is a contested one - we can justify it in various ways. And knee-jerk individualist justifications are deeply problematic. Here is a passage making that point:
"The libertarian view – that the First Amendment is a protection of free expression – makes its appeal to the individualistic ethos that so dominates our popular and political culture. … Yet this theory is unable to explain why the interests of the speakers should take priority over the interests of those individuals who are discussed in the speech, or who must listen to the speech, when the two sets of interests conflict. Nor is it able to explain why the right of free speech should extend to the many institutions and organizations … that are routinely protected under the First< Amendment, despite the fact that they do not directly represent the individual interest in free expression. Speech is valued so importantly in the Constitution, I maintain, not because it is a form of self-expression or self-actualization but rather because it is essential for collective self-determination. Democracy allows people to chose the form of life they wish to live and presupposes that this choice is made against a background of public debate that is, to use the now famous formula of Justice Brennan, “uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.”*
If the College is meant to be self-governing, and if it is (rightly) protective of the free speech necessary to academic freedom, what we need on campus are forums (workshops, teach-ins, etc.) to address the sorts of conflicts the University now confronts. We are working on it.
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* Owen Fiss. 1996. The Irony of Free Speech. Harvard UP, page 3. 
** Correction: I have been informed that the student in question lives in a house on the fraternity quad, but that the house is not a frat house and that the student is not affiliated with any fraternity.

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4 Comments:

Blogger C.W. Roden (esq) said...

"In short, the confederate flag is indeed a symbol of the "Southern identity" and that identity is thoroughly inflected by racism. It is disingenuous to suggest otherwise."

I don't think you will find too many people who support the flag who will deny that the flag has been misappropriated by bigots to further outdated agendas.
That being said is "Southern identity" inflected by racism? Yes, but then again so is American identity as a whole.
Yet American identity is allowed to flourish and grow. American identity is given the benefit of the doubt despite its deeply racist past.
Is it so hard to afford Southern identity and its symbols the same?

28 October, 2013 14:48  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

So why is the flag "misappropriated" instead of being used for precisely what it was meant to do?

No one denies (at least I don't) that there is a racist dimension to American politics and culture writ large. After all, every state complied with the 3/5 compromise until the post-Civil War amendments. So what? Did any other part of the country enshrine Jim Crow?

That is why the answer to your final question is simple - Yes, it is quite hard to do so.

30 October, 2013 09:25  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

PS: And, by the way, in the campus conflict that prompted this post the student flying the flag adamantly insists that it has zero racist connotations. And among his allies, one in particular has waxed nostalgic for the days of black chattel slavery. It is hardly coincidence that such views follow rebel flag displays with great regularity.

30 October, 2013 09:30  
Blogger JNagarya said...

Let's cut to the core issue:

1. The confederate flag, as the flag of the confederacy, represents the confederacy and its "values".

2. The Senators of the seceding states made expressly clear, on the floor of the SEnate, that the issue for them was the preservation of slavery.

3. The confederate constitution is essentially the same as the US Constitution -- with the addition of prohibitions against (a) legislation adversely affecting the institution of slavery, and (b) prohibiting any amendments to that constitution which would adversely affect the institution of slavery.

Regardless the excuses, apologetics, and outright lying in denying the fact, the confederacy was expressly based upon the preservation of slavery.

That is what the confederate flag represents: racism, and its foundation as preservation of slavery. To the degreee its uses concerns "freedom of speech," it symbolizes a direct attack on the Fourteenth Amendment, and its implementation in civil rights laws -- as a beginning. It is the symbol of white racist supremacism, and nothing other or less than that.

20 November, 2013 17:05  

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