Huckleberry Finn, Displaying Confederate Flags and the Political Correctness Movement

by Jonah Begone

I have just finished reading Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, called by many (and for a number of years) "the Great American Novel." In my own estimation it is great - working at many levels it's a story about freedom, youth, mid-nineteenth century American society, honesty and racism. Sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, it's the kind of book that should be read twice in a man's life: once as a boy and once as a man. The boy will enjoy it as an adventure and the man will recognize it as a masterpiece of social satire that invokes wistful recollections of his own youth.

Not all people agree as to the merits of the book. It was banned when it was first published because it was considered "veriest trash," without any redeeming literary qualities. Now, during the politically correct 1990's it's out of favor and a candidate for re-banning because it is considered "racist." An intelligent reader can discern from even a hasty study that the book is about racism, but not racist in itself. There is a major difference: the moral of the book is not only that slavery was bad and racism is foolish but that old notions and attitudes must often be rethought. (Ironically this is the battle cry of the politically correct!) This nuance of meaning, however, isn't sufficient for those who would throw the baby out with the bath water and do away with racism by eliminating any mention of it no matter how articulate or subtle. Fortunately, the First Amendment and public resistance to a "See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil" attitude keeps the book on the library shelves where it belongs.

The meaning of this for reenactors is obvious. Having attended events as a Federal I have sometimes been uncomfortably aware that people do not always agree with what you think or represent. For instance, in a pass-in-review at one small town event the stars and stripes I was marching behind was once loudly booed by a group of people I could only charitably refer to as "locals." On the other side of the Mason-Dixon Line Confederate reenactors are in the position of having to display "Heritage, Not Hatred - Fly It!" bumper stickers to justify bearing reproduction Confederate battle flags, considered by some to be a symbol of racism on a par with the swastika. (Another manifestation of this simplistic thinking is assuming every Confederate reenactor represents a slave owner.) Equally wrong-headed was a movement to disregard history and alter the lyrics of the Maryland state song to conform to a modern pro-Union, anti-Confederate (and therefore anti-slavery) sentiment. This revisionist attitude is as sad as the declining academic scores of our children.

The crime is not merely the faulty conclusion that the stars and stripes represents Northern tyranny or that a Confederate battle flag symbolizes racism - it's that people are uninformed and simplistic enough to think that they do without realizing what else they can mean and have meant. We Americans have a complex and fascinating cultural heritage. Certain aspects of it may sometimes make us feel uncomfortable and even guilty, but it's our own history and we cannot amend or erase it (although we have all seen embarrassing instances when historians have attempted to revise it to agree with current trends).

For many people a Confederate battle flag represents Southern pride, love of the region or what's musically termed as "Southern Rock." It also represents the Civil War and the bitterness of the era, but it's far better that we understand what Americans have said and done in the past and to make an individual judgement concerning its moral value than it is to falsely repackage history, no matter what the current social climate. (This is the attitude of the professional historian that reenactors strive to attain.) The charade a politician needs to employ in order to get elected is not a good background for an informed study of our actual history.

Of course a real concern with the prohibition of the display of the Confederate flag becomes apparent when one recalls the mentality of policy-makers; they could - and would - pass laws and ordinances without fully understanding the complexity of the issue involved. (One solution to this unfortunate event would be to recollect what that defender of Southern prerogatives Abe Lincoln said about unpopular laws: they are best gotten rid of by their stringent enforcement!) As a practical matter, however, I doubt we're seeing the last of the Rebel flags simply because the Boy Scouts of America decided to eliminate them from their patches. I suspect a combination of First Amendment rights, the judicial precedents that reinforce free speech and the natural orneriness of the Southern die-hard will prevail. After all, prohibiting the display of Confederate flags doesn't repudiate slavery or racism - it merely puts a different sort of narrow-mindedness on display.

Ours is a big country - big and diverse enough to support many views and opinions regarding a subject. Twentieth century Americans should learn to look beyond what the "sound bite," the ad-men, the marketing experts and the political hacks try to foist upon us. And while I certainly don't agree with the Lost Cause sentiment I hear invoked among many Confederate reenactors I hope to continue to see them wave their flags proudly at reenactments and historical events. The First Amendment protects their right to do so as appropriately as it ensures library shelf space for Huckleberry Finn.