I awoke this past Saturday at about 6:30 AM. My task for the morning was to go to Arizona State University, where I work, and hold a class session for parents to demonstrate how we teach discussion classes for entering first year students at Barrett, The Honors College, where I do most of my teaching. I was planning to hold a discussion about the Gettysburg Address.
As I started to prepare for the day, I remembered that some three time zones away, the Virginia Flaggers would at long last have their day in the sun as they dedicated their new flagpole along I-95 welcoming commuters and visitors as they drove north to Richmond. When the project was announced in early August, I scoffed. Oh, sure, the Flaggers would succeed in this endeavor. How could they fail? After all, they had secured a piece of private property where they could erect the flagpole, so there was no way anyone could stop them, and I for one was not interested in stopping them (although I knew they so dearly needed to believe otherwise).
In the weeks to come I found that the story built its own momentum. I had always treated the Flaggers as something of a bad comedy act, a parody of serious heritage endeavors, populated by some mean-spirited people who struck me as pathetic. The notion that they wanted the flag to welcome people to Richmond struck me as ludicrous. The notion that they were going to stick a flag out by an interstate, shorn of all context, and claim it honored Confederate heritage impressed me as at best highly unoriginal and at worst a joke, because without any context people would make of it what they would. After all, free speech allows people to make fools of themselves, and what else could one expect from a group that treasures Tripp Lewis? And who could forget Tasergate?
Then things got more interesting. The Flaggers bragged that they were going to place their flag on historic ground, but they really didn’t seem to care whether in the process they might damage valuable historical resources … or worst. Then I learned that many of the Flaggers embraced white supremacist Matthew Heimbach, with Lewis calling him a “good guy” and with Grayson Jennings, Karen Cooper, and Lewis considering him a friend, as well as the leader of the Flaggers, Susan Hathaway, who invited Heimbach to today’s annual Flaggers picnic.
Then I wondered why Hathaway herself had fallen silent. She’d never been shy in front of a microphone or camera before, and she was far more articulate than either her male counterparts or her self-appointed “heavy hitter,” the screeching and screaming Connie Chastain. Before long one learned that it was because her visibility with the Flaggers might complicate matters between her employer, a prestigious architectural firm in Richmond, and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, a prime target of Hathaway’s ire, for the firm had been contracted to renovate another historical building with ties to Confederate veterans on the VMFA’s property. She continues to maintain a low profile, suggesting that perhaps her commitment to honoring Confederate heritage is less than absolute, while the Flaggers, so loud about anything else, refused to say a word of protest about whether her employer should compel her silence on pain of losing her employment. Apparently their commitment to honor is conditional, too: they might look into contacting other people’s employers or post personal information, but they could not wrestle with this revelation and its implications. We’ll see how those Flagger efforts at harassment turn out.
Moreover, I was aware that in this instance other people, including people I had never met and people who had never before become involved in what some might call “the heritage wars,” took offense. They did not want their community to be represented by a symbol that was divisive. They understood the other associations people make with the Confederate flag, and it was reasonable to assume that the Flaggers were no different after they embraced Matthew Heimbach. These people came to me as someone who knew something about the larger historical implications of Confederate heritage as well as someone who knew how the Flaggers operated. One result of this is amusing: the Flaggers, who always craved publicity, now have it, as well as the scrutiny that comes with it. Another result is rewarding: those Richmonders, many of whom had never known each other until now, have formed a network of community activism that promises to do much good for all Richmonders in particular and all Virginians in general. As a graduate of the University of Virginia, I could not be more pleased with that development. It’s a diverse, inclusive, and united group of people, and I’m glad I could do what I could to help them out.
But all that didn’t seem to matter much this past Saturday morning. I had a very good idea of where the Flaggers would place their flagpole, as did some other people, but I thought it best if I did not publicize that fact too much, lest someone commit an act of vandalism (or unless the Flaggers followed the example of Rob Walker and faked an incident). After all, they were entitled to fly their flag, even if upon inspection it looked slightly off in the eyes of some. Better for me to concentrate on the task at hand, and teach the Gettysburg Address.
Now, here’s something I’ve never revealed before. I find it very difficult to read the entire Gettysburg Address through without choking up a bit. It is one of the most moving pieces of prose in the English language, and it is an exemplar of the American genius in literature. Now here I was, in front of the parents of our students at Barrett, discussing the address and its context for nearly an hour. I was aware that as I was doing so that we are a nation at war, and that every day we have to consider the sacrifice of our fighting men and women. And so, as usual, it was with some difficulty that I made my way through some portions of the address, even though I would read a sentence or two and ask for comments, pause for discussion, answer questions, or provide commentary. I discussed the controversial nature of some symbols, including the very flag that would go up that flagpole that day … and was doubtless now up as I spoke. The parents were engaging and insightful, and it was a rewarding session.
That’s what heritage means, Charlie Brown.
After doing some errands in the afternoon, I came home, and prepared to recommit myself to some writing projects. Upon checking my e-mail, I learned I had to tour several blogs. So I went here. And here. And here. Even here. Later I came here.
Never in my wildest dreams could I imagine someone being so stupid and incompetent. The pole (as I suspected) was too short. It’s already masked by trees. It’s right by an underpass, so in one direction you can’t see it driving unless you jerk your head to the right immediately after the underpass. The pole appears to be set in a depression in the ground, almost as if someone was too embarrassed to display it.
Even when the Flaggers are in a position where they can’t help winning, they lose … and this time, they have no one but themselves to blame. It’s bad enough to find yourself on the losing end in struggles with the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of the Confederacy, and the city of Lexington, Virginia. But this self-inflicted wound beats them all.
I can’t wait for the night lights and the security cameras (apparently they aren’t in place yet). Please, folks: let this monument to the futility of the Virginia Flaggers stand for all to see. If anyone’s going to take it down, it won’t be people who are doubling over with laughter, but people who are sincerely committed to Confederate heritage.
And that, in the end, makes me a bit angry, too. This typical Flagger antic is in fact a humiliation to the memory of the Confederate soldier. It makes a mockery of who they were. To fly a half-hidden flag smacks of embarrassment and even shame for what they did. This is no way to pay proper homage and respect to Confederate soldiers if you want to show them respect. It is, however, an ideal way to behave if you want to make fun of them and denigrate what they did.
The Virginia Flaggers achieved one thing on Saturday. They have wrested a most valuable title from another group whose tomfoolery, stupidity, ignorance, and bigotry has often been highlighted on this blog. They now bear the title of …
The Gift That Keeps On Giving