January 19, 2008

What That Flag Stands For: Mike Huckabee and the Confederate Flag Flap

We've all heard by now about Mike Huckabee's comments about the Confederate battle flag and its proud flapping in South Carolina. For his part, Huckabee won't say whether he personally finds the flag to be offensive, ducking behind the notion that only those who live in some particular place should have anything to say about what goes on there:

Colmes pressed, "But, Governor, people want to know what your sensibilities are. Do you see it as a symbol of southern pride or do you see it as a symbol of racism? How do you, personally, view that flag?"

Huckabee dodged again. He said, "It doesn’t matter. No, you’re missing my point, Alan, with all due respect. It is not an issue for me because I don’t live in South Carolina."

— Huckabee on Hannity & Colmes, 1/18/08

While it can be argued whether or not such a thing is appropriately an issue in a presidential contest, it can't be denied that the position on such a question taken by a candidate tells us something about his character and/or understanding of American history. The heart of the question that could be asked about Huckabee's response, then, is: Does Huckabee understand and support what the Confederate battle flag stands for?

This is an argument I've had a number of times over the years. People, whether out of ignorance or misplaced pride, like to argue that what the Confederacy was about, and by extension what the Confederate flag stands for, is essentially anti-federalism. "States' rights!" is the usual response from such people. The next question I like to pose in such discussions is, "States' rights to do what?" Typically, I get some vague comments about self-determination, which answers the question with an equivalent term.

At this point, I like to let a fellow named Alexander Stephens respond. You'd think it was hard for him to do that; he's been dead for a long time now. During his life, though, Stephens was the vice president of the Confederate States of America. On March 21, 1861, Stephens made a speech in Savannah, Georgia in which he laid out in no uncertain terms what the CSA stood for. For this reason, that speech has come to be known as The Cornerstone Speech. Among the core principles of the CSA, and so symbolized by the flag that flaps so proudly above the South Carolina state capitol building, we find these passages:
The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution—African slavery as it exists amongst us—the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the "rock upon which the old Union would split." He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically... The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error...

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth... Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind—from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics. Their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just—but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails... They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal...

May we not, therefore, look with confidence to the ultimate universal acknowledgment of the truths upon which our system rests? It is the first government ever instituted upon the principles in strict conformity to nature, and the ordination of Providence, in furnishing the materials of human society. Many governments have been founded upon the principle of the subordination and serfdom of certain classes of the same race; such were and are in violation of the laws of nature. Our system commits no such violation of nature’s laws. With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system... The substratum of our society is made of the material fitted by nature for it, and by experience we know that it is best, not only for the superior, but for the inferior race, that it should be so. It is, indeed, in conformity with the ordinance of the Creator. It is not for us to inquire into the wisdom of His ordinances, or to question them. For His own purposes, He has made one race to differ from another, as He has made "one star to differ from another star in glory." The great objects of humanity are best attained when there is conformity to His laws and decrees, in the formation of governments as well as in all things else. Our confederacy is founded upon principles in strict conformity with these laws...

— Alexander H. Stephens, The Cornerstone Speech, 1861

Does Stephens' Cornerstone Speech contain other things than this? Of course! It talks about other ideas embodied by the Confederacy — laissez faire economics, representation in government, and ideas about responsibility for infrastructure that we might characterize as Libertarian in modern parlance are all present as well. Still, all of these things rest, in Stephens' own words, upon a "cornerstone" of slavery, a foundation of racism positing that the proper condition of anyone of African ancestry was to become the property of superior European descendants. Stephens could hardly have been more clear on this point; he sees this situation as having been ordained by God. Slavery is not only a social arrangement in his eyes but a Biblical commandment and those who oppose it are both insane and blasphemous. It is no more justifiable to deny, then, that the Confederate flag stands for this philosophy than it would be to disregard the idea of the Final Solution in Nazi Germany and fly the flag of that regime while claiming that it stands for making the trains run on time. Stephens himself was not some insignificant southerner; he was a founder of the Confederacy and second in command of its government. He spoke with full authority as its representative.

This being the case, nobody with a knowledge of history and a functioning reasoning faculty can fail to understand why so many people see the Confederate flag as inherently offensive. That it stands for a base racism justified not only on the basis of expediency but religious fervor is beyond any doubt worth consideration. For Huckabee to endorse its being displayed on public property anywhere in America, for him to defend such a thing on any basis, reveals that he either sympathizes with what it symbolizes or else that he isn't aware of what it means. Neither one of these conditions speaks of an individual who is the best choice, or even a good choice, to be the leader of this country. It may not be a presidential issue, but Huckabee's defense of that flag and his subsequent refusal to express even personal objection to it speak volumes about the kind of human being that he is. At best, it tells us that he values his own political well-being above the strength of character necessary to stand up to racism, hatred and oppression. At worst, it tells us that he is a vile sympathizer with one of the most shameful institutions in all of the history of civilization.

That he once accepted an invitation to act as a speaker at a conference of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a group that states among other things that
...We also oppose all efforts to mix the races of mankind, to promote non-white races over the European-American people through so-called “affirmative action” and similar measures, to destroy or denigrate the European-American heritage, including the heritage of the Southern people, and to force the integration of the races...


doesn't do much to dispel the idea that Huckabee may have some racist leanings. There is more on that story in The Nation today.

America would do better to elect a flagpole as president than it would in giving the job to Mike Huckabee. The best we can hope of the man is that he's an idiot.

Sphere: Related Content