It’s been a little over two weeks since the Virginia Flaggers announced their intention to erect a flagpole south of Richmond along Interstate 95 for the purpose of displaying the Confederate navy jack. A petition opposing the proposal is nearing 10,000 signatures. There’s been ample news coverage and editorial commentary, and the Flaggers have not fared all that well. That said, there is nothing to suggest that these protests have had any impact on the Flaggers’ determination to forge ahead, and opponents of the proposal concede that the Flaggers are well within their rights to proceed (although Flaggers whine about free speech, people are not contesting their right to do as they plan; rather, the Flaggers and their supporters simply want to forbid criticism … suggesting they want free speech, but only for themselves).
Nevertheless, even if the Flaggers prevail, this may be a pyrrhic victory.
Here’s why: until now, the Flaggers have been largely dismissed as little more than a fringe group that picketed various places associated with the Confederacy, whether it be the VMFA-managed chapel, the Museum of the Confederacy, or other Confederate-related sites. Here and there they’ve sought a little more publicity, but no one really cared much about them: this explains why when the Flaggers announced that filmaker of choice Rob Walker had reported thwarting the vandalism of a Confederate monument by wielding a taser–a report later proven to be false, and one which the Flaggers had to retract–the local media shrugged. After all, who cared about the Flaggers? Not most Richmonders. But that will no longer be the case. The next time Tripp Lewis stumbles, it may get more attention. So might the views of website maintainer Connie Chastain: after all, even Susan Hathaway says she leaves the heavy hitting (below the belt) to Chastain, a statement that is guaranteed to come back to haunt her (why anyone would welcome aboard the baggage-laded Chastain is a question we need not answer). Opponents of the project have established their own links to the media and are sharing information.
Some Flaggers may find themselves rudely surprised if they ever learn the identity of those who are sharing information with opponents of the project. I know I was surprised to see cracks in the ranks of heritage advocates with links to the group. As one clearly committed Confederate heritage advocate put it, “I hope they can get their project completed, however after reading countless stories on this I am not sure if this is for a publicity stunt or just a compete lack of vision. I have read for two weeks the posts on this, I have seen some of the interviews, and all the buzz sturred up. If this is on private land, put it up! Stop with the media onslaught, and the odd responses. Seems that there is more here than we are being told.”
With publicity comes scrutiny, folks.
Moreover, for all of the Flaggers’ talk about heritage, their choice of symbol and location leaves much to be desired, precisely because the flag is presented without context. Sure, Confederate heritage folks will see it as honoring the heritage they say so much about (although at times they are painfully vague about defining that heritage). However, other people will see it in different terms, and it will not help when some Flaggers make comments that define heritage in ways that others may find offensive. Of course, the Flaggers are already talking about threats of vandalism, and claim they are taking security measures to protect their enterprise, but, given the Walker case, people may well wonder whether any such incident might in fact be staged by the Flaggers themselves (they have sought confrontation before and then claimed they were being victimized). The fact remains that everyone’s free to interpret the flag as they please from their perspective, and the Flaggers’ failure to go beyond the simple erection of the flag opens the door to precisely that sort of controversy.
In her way, even Susan Hathaway agrees with this assessment of the problematic display of a flag out of context. Back in 2011 she wrote:
When we are out on the street talking with folks, one thing we always discuss is how important it is to keep dialogue flowing about these issues. Our flags are the starting point for these discussions. When they are out, we talk about them.
Hiding them may (temporarily) end the discussion, but it does not allow for the exchange of feelings, ideas, and experiences which, in our experience, can lead to civil discourse which allows a better understanding of ALL aspects of our history.
Those who want to hide our flags incorrectly assume that by taking them out of the public eye, any misrepresentations or bad feelings associated with them will just “go away”. On the contrary. Civil discourse and education are the key to success here, and that is what we are doing, every day.
The new proposal does not allow for this dialogue to occur. No Flaggers will be out by the interstate to explain the message they are sending or to converse with folks. It has nothing to do with changing hearts and minds. It simply reinforces division. It shuts down discourse in favor of defiant confrontation.
We might well wonder whether the Flaggers, given their behavior, might melt under the new spotlight they have placed upon themselves.