Flagging our identity

Seattle Seahawks 12th Man flag

12th Man flag in Seattle

It’s funny how out-of-towners notice what you take for granted. Driving around Seattle with my California sister recently, I saw the city with fresh eyes when she finally asked, what’s with the big “12” flags all over the place? I explained the significance of the “12th Man” in the success of our home team Seattle Seahawks—we have the loudest stadium in the NFL, known for disrupting opponents, so the noisy fans, collectively, are said to be like having a 12th player on our side.

For the last few years, Seattle has been enjoying a tribal sense of pride in the success of “our team.” (Most people prefer not to look too closely at reality: it’s a violent business that enjoys a monopoly and billions in taxpayer subsidies, making a few people extremely wealthy while chewing up and spitting out most of its participants. But that’s a different story.) Identifying with the team’s playoff and Superbowl success, feeling like we’re all on the winning team—it’s strengthened our sense of community. Hey, it’s fun to feel superior to others! And the flags make that tangible. You drive by a house with a big 12 flag and you feel: those people are kindred spirits.

Confederate flag, Fredericksburg, VA

Confederate flag, Fredericksburg, VA

I spent a lot of time during the 14 months we spent traveling the country, marveling at the prevalence of Confederate flags in the old South, and how they defined the identity of those who fly them. I’ve been a lifelong west coaster, so my associations with that flag are entirely negative: it represents slavery and its legacy of bigotry, violence, and hatred.

I knew the flag from history books and the occasional news story of course. But until I spent some time in southern states I didn’t realize just how much presence the flag still had, on homes and vehicles, along roads and highways across the South. Even on a few state flags.

Vicksburg Old Courthouse Museum

Confederate battle flag in a Vicksburg museum

In the course of our travels, I blogged about what we were doing and seeing, and I was so curious about the flag’s very obvious presence; I just couldn’t understand why this hateful thing was still around. I tried talking with people about it but it’s hard to converse openly when you first meet someone; it’s a touchy subject. Only in a couple of museums and one school did I have actual conversations about what the Confederate flag means to southerners today. Mostly I heard the sanitized, PC rationale: now it represents pride in their heritage and respect for their forbears. Actions still speak louder than words though, so that’s obviously not the whole truth, even if it’s honest for many people. Because it was so hard to have meaningful talks with people about it, I found myself digging around and reading more about the southern experience after the Civil War, the economic and psychic consequences of which we’ve been dragging around with us ever since.

Mississippi flag

The Mississippi state flag with the US flag

It’s still true that the more you learn, the harder it is to see in black and white. In the course of meeting a few warm, sincere, enlightened Southerners, and my exposure to their history, I came to a more nuanced understanding of why the old battle flag is still flying in many places—even after the massacre in Charleston precipitated removing it from a few prominent spots.

Of course, flags have been used to foster a sense of identity and allegiance ever since the emergence of political bodies. It feels good to be in a tribe. We all crave the feeling of being part of something larger than ourselves; that sense of belonging is one of the essentials in life, right after food and a roof. And yes, there’s a lurching, halting shift to a belief that flying the flag doesn’t serve the South well any more. But for some in the South, too many, it apparently still feels better to overlook the hateful connotations of the Confederate flag than to take it down and turn your back on your tribe.

While an “us vs. them” identity unites us with some, it divides us from so many others. That’s pretty harmless when you fly a big “12” on your house. But those who fly a Confederate flag to hold on to an old sense of belonging to a proud tribe (a very human impulse), also hold on to old associations of racial hatred, preventing a lot of basically good people from expanding ties across old divides.

I could go on, but I need to finish this up. The football game is about to start.

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