Study in Wood #6
American Flag, American literary Canon, American Territory, Book Review, Donald Trump, Emily Dickinson, Gangs of New York, Henry David Thoreau, Jammer, Jammer Talks, Jane Tompkins, lecture, Literature, New World, New World Species, Old World, Owen Wister, Roderick Nash, Susan Warner, The Poems of Emily Dickinson, The Virginian, The Wide Wide World, Theodore Roosevelt, Video lecture, Walden, West of Everything-The Inner Life of Westerns, Wilderness and the American Mind, YouTube
A professor of mine is teaching a course over the works of Henry David Thoreau, her favorite, and she asked me along with several other alumni from UT Tyler, if we wanted to make a few small video lectures for the class. I recently finished Walden and thought I would give it a go. Here it is, my first Youtube video ever. Enjoy:
I suppose there’s no point in being clever about this, I own a confederate flag. You see, if you happen to be a white man in any of the southern states, you’re at some point either going to own one, see one, know someone that owns one, or you’re going to paste it on the back of your truck or your girlfriend’s ass (her pants I mean). Now I don’t fly the flag, because there’s no way I could. The flag is really more of a bandanna, about a foot long and half a foot wide. I’ve owned it since I was about thirteen. For a while I had it tacked, yes, I said tacked, onto my bedroom wall for about three or four years, and then it found its way into my underwear drawer where it’s stayed until this day. Until I took it out after I heard about Charleston.
Now as soon as I heard the news I was shocked, but really just angry that this same shit keeps happening over and over again. This anger was quickly followed by anger directed at Fox News for their attempt to gloss over the tragedy and try to make it an attack against Christianity. I was frustrated after I watched President Obama address the nation, because it’s clear the man is defeated and feels that he can’t do or say anything to change it. This was followed by actual weeping after Watching Jon Stewart’s five minute riff when he abandoned all pretense of comedy and just spoke honestly. And finally an intellectual conundrum today as I read that the Confederate flag was being taken down from the state house in South Carolina.
I’m sure I’m not alone in having friends that are debating this issue voraciously on Facebook; the pattern of this debate could be predicted before the last shell casing fell in Charleston. Just about every white person online, if they’re from the south is arguing that the flag is a representation of our nation’s history, or else just a symbol for white pride and states’ rights. Though I note with pride that several of my white friends aren’t taking this position. The opposite side is that many people of color are calling the flag a symbol of racism and hate.
As for myself, I’m torn.
There’s a scene in the television series South Park where Stan says to the character Token, “I get it now. I don’t get. I’ll never know what it’s like to be called that word, and I never will.” At this moment this is my position, and for the purpose of this intellectual exercise I’m going to try to understand the flag from both sides, with the understanding that I’ll still never get it.
We’ll start with the position with which I have the least footing.
Many African American organizations are protesting the flag, because they argue that the flag represents nothing but racism and white hate. This position is understandable, once we remember the history of that flag as it’s been actively employed. What many white people arguing for the flag seem to be either ignoring, or just trying to forget, is that the confederate flag is actively employed and revered by numerous white hate organizations. The Klu Klux Klan, a White Christian terrorist group, is always seen saluting it, even going so far to have their own unit, known as the color guard, responsible for the protecting it. The Klan is the most obvious symbol for everything that is fucked up about the South, and white people to boot, and they have embraced the flag as a symbol of their own power and agency. It becomes understandable then why many would be uncomfortable when that flag is waved around in public. The physical offenses against black people performed by the Klan include lynching, mutilation, genital mutilation, torture, gang rape, arson, and outright physical assault. Black men, as I’ve addressed in a recent post, could expect one of the worst punishments as many white racists were intimidated by Black sexuality and made an effort to neuter black men lest their steal their women. All of these actions have been taken place under the shadow of the Confederate flag.
Is it any wonder then that black people want it taken down? When your grandfather was lynched because he gave a car ride to a white woman, your pain is rather validated. But it’s not just the physical pressure that that flag reminds in many. It is the consistent political, economic, and psychological inequality that comes with it. African Americans have, in the last two centuries, struggled tremendously to try and catch up to the position that whites have blossomed under. It’s only within the last decades that we’ve seen the rise of African American millionaires, and while some would suggest that African Americans are equal, remember that the concentration of wealth in this nation is dominated by white people. If you don’t believe me Google Bill Gates, The Koch Brothers, & Warren Buffet and see if you still disagree with me.
As for the flag flying over Charleston, what was possibly the greatest offense of the whole affair was that, while the American and state flag was hung at half mast, the confederate flag was secured in its position by chains. I’m a literature major, and a writer, and I can’t even come up with a better metaphor.
The position of many African Americans it seems is that their voices have for too long been ignored, and that whenever they try to address their own dissenting view, they’re told to remember they’re place. The flag is more than just a tool used by white hate groups; it’s a reminder that they’re a second class party.
I’ve done my best there to understand one party’s side, let me now try to understand white people’s side.
One of my favorite stories about Heavy Metal Guitar player “Dimebag” Darrel is that he had longhorns on the front of his Cadillac, and beneath that, on his license plate was an image of the Confederate flag. He also owned, and regularly played, a guitar that had the confederate flag printed on the body. The man would always say, “I’m proud to be from the South.” Now there’s no way anybody could call “Dimebag” Darrel a racist; out of the mass of humanity you’re wont to find a kinder or more generous soul. But the idea that the flag represents the south and its culture has always been a dubious position at best.
For starters, the confederate flag wasn’t the ONLY confederate flag. The Confederate States actually went through three different versions of the flag, and the “Stars and Bars” that many people immediately flock to, isn’t the Confederate flag, for the image we associate with it, was actually a square. Now there is a rectangular version of this flag that was “The Second Confederate Navy Jack.” This flag was for the Confederate Navy.
Most southern people probably wouldn’t be able to tell you this, and I myself wouldn’t be able to tell you this if it weren’t for Wikipedia.
This leads me to the conflict of the position many white people take about the Confederate flag. They have flocked to the symbol the flag offers about enjoying being a southerner, but almost none of them have taken the time to actually open a book or do at the very least some minimal internet research about their actual “history.” For many whites, being from the south is about being a hick, shouting Yee-Haw, dancing to Hank William’s Jr. and George Strait, getting drunk, pasting confederate flags on women’s breasts, and falling on their ass.
I’m not trying to sound condemnatory when I say this; it’s my people after all. I’m from Texas and I’m damn proud of it. But still, there is the conflict about taking pride in a history I know very little about.
As for the argument that the flag is a representation of “culture,” I’m not sure I buy that either. The conflict with white people is that they have no real “culture” to speak of. If you observe the Upper Class of Whites in the south it’s a feudal enterprise coupled with the pomp of 18th century France. Europe has a culture, several in fact, and each of those cultures has their own set of foibles and mannerisms that have been developed literally over centuries of their existence. The problem with Americans is that we only have about 200 years of experience under our belt, and so our identity is still in the process of development. As such, we seem to cling to whatever heritage we have, and envy in our heart of hearts, those that have more than us, if you don’t believe me read about The Cult of Churchill and see what I’m talking about.
But to be honest my strongest argument about the confederate flag is not rooted in its racist history (I’m white, take that into account) but in its political statement. The Confederate flag is being created into a pseudo-patriotic symbol equal to the American flag. If you’re white and from the south, you have to worship the Confederate flag, and lord forbid you criticize, but what exactly are white southerners celebrating? The formation of the Confederacy marks a period of our nations past where our ability to communicate with one another became so splintered and racked with malice, that we broke our nation in two. That’s what bothers me: the celebration of treason. Now every nation, historically speaking, has to have a civil war at some point, it’s just part of the natural order, but that separation and bloodshed isn’t really something we should be celebrating. Like racism or pissing your pants in Gym Class (I was in the first grade, and it was only that one time), a civil war isn’t something we should be remembering with fondness, we should be remembering it with embarrassment and some shame.
The people that are attempting to defend the Confederate flag seem more concerned with their southern Confederate paradigm than they are with the real symbols that are supposed to support the American consciousness. If you want to be a red blooded American, wave the American flag. That’s the symbol that’s supposed to mean something, because it’s the symbol that has endured. Despite our disagreements, despite attacks against us, despite two centuries of internal conflict, the Stars and Stripes is the symbol that should inspire pride.
I guess this hasn’t been a fair argument for both sides, and I apologize, but this was only ever supposed to be thinking out loud.
My final point: If a nation is going to survive healthily, its people need to differentiate about the symbols that create our sense of identity. I’ll keep my confederate flag in my underwear drawer and keep the American Flag on my wall, because one symbol reminds me that I’m participating in a democracy, where people can be and speak and worship and think and write and act freely, and the other reminds me that there are nine dead people in Charleston and that I won’t be able to get on facebook for another week unless I want to unfriend a few people.
Though it also reminds me that I need to do laundry since the flag’s the only damn thing in there at the moment.
"Under God", American Flag, Atheism, Crying babies, flags, graduation, Individual Will, letter, Lord's Prayer, On Writing, peer pressure, Public speech, Robin Williams, Separation of Church and State, The Pledge of Allegiance
As you’ve seen in some of the photos I’ve shared with you, behind my writing desk is an American flag. This is not because I’m from Texas, this is not because I come from a predominantly Republican household, it’s not even because I eat, drink, sleep, and live AmericaAmericaAmerica. The actual reason that flag is there was because it served as the door to my original closet/writing space when I was just starting out as a writer.
I had read Stephen King’s On Writing and, I would really recommend it to you, if you want to be a writer or teach writing like you mentioned. I had read the book and absorbed two lessons from the book. The first was that the only way to become stronger as a writer was to write everyday and try to get at least 3000 words a day. That just about killed me. The other lesson was to write somewhere private, where you could be completely alone with your mind, your thoughts, and whatever inspiration led you to write in the first place. Now in the house I grew up in that was little bit difficult because my parents had built their own house and there were a couple of rooms that didn’t have doors. It wasn’t that we were lazy, it’s just one of those things that didn’t get done right away and you eventually learn to live with it. Fortunately I had a door to my bedroom, but that room was too large. So, I retreated to my closet, but the open doorway was too much temptation. I needed something to block out the world. As best I can remember I was watching the movie Patton with my Dad and that great big American Flag just spoke to me and so I began asking for a flag. A few weeks later I received the cloth flag and it’s been with me ever since. There were so many afternoons when I would be writing and I would look up and the sunlight would shine through the red white and blue. I imagined all the boys that had died holding that flag and their memories and the weight of the symbol would take me.
Enough pathos, back to my godlessness.
I got your letter and the answer to the first part is that I have to watch it again first. Trust me, give me a few days, maybe a week and I’ll have a review for the Dead Poet’s Society up. I love Robin Williams too and it’s about damn time I worship him on this blog. Did I write worship? I meant revere. CRAP!
Anyway, as per the second request my flag story is relevant because you asked me about prayer in public.
You’re right it is a touchy subject, and to be honest, whenever people bring it up in conversation I mostly just nod my head and smile because I don’t want to be rude; in fact I’m almost always doing this. I dream one day of being the asshole atheist that confirms somebody’s bias that all atheists are assholes trying to stomp out their liberty and rip their god away from them. But the topic is interesting and as always I have a story to help the conversation flow a little better.
About a year ago I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas at Tyler. It’s a wonderful little school and I’ve developed there a real fellowship with the teachers, both in my own department and also in several others. I graduated Magna Cum Laude (now I’m just showing off, but I was proud of myself dammit) with a degree in English. Now there were several things wrong with my actual graduation service. For starters I didn’t want to be there, I hate formal ceremonies, but my wife was graduating too and my family was going whether I liked it or not. In the second part there were more crying babies per capita than I have ever experienced in my entire life. I don’t even remember what the speaker said, I don’t even remember who the speaker was. But what struck me the most about the whole affair was that before the ceremony began, or before we had spoken the Pledge of Allegiance, a representative from one of the student christian organizations was called up to say a prayer.
Now B——I know your immediate response, you’re unfailingly apologetic, it’s not a bad thing. You’ll say, well who cares, it was just a graduation, and you were in East Texas did you expect anything different? The fact of the matter was, yes, I did expect something different. My conflict was not that the prayer was spoken because I was an atheist, my conflict was they were performing a prayer in a public institution. Since our school falls within the UT system we are not a private school, therefore we cannot dictate our own religious standing. Having a prayer spoken at the beginning of the service, and then a second time before we ended, was a violation public policy governing the separation of church and state. I was embarrassed, for while there were many Christians in the audience there were also jews, muslims, hindus, and at least, one atheist.
I recall we were asked to bow our heads, and I’m not trying to sound heroic when I write this, but out of the hundred to a thousand people in the great hall, I alone did not bow my head. Let me at least have that moment of integrity till the day I die.
Now this is the part where I’m sure I’ll be further crucified as a heretic, for following the prayer was the Pledge of Allegiance. In East Texas once the prayer has been spoken there is no such great activity as is Pledging Allegiance, though that may be because there is the opportunity to say two words that blend government and religion so organically and philosophically. We all turned to the flag hanging limp on the most-likely-not-actual-wood –pole, and recited the Pledge. I recited the Pledge, leaving out the words “Under God.” I can’t confess to you B—— how terrified I was by doing this. For despite my shameless heroic rhetoric, not praying, not bowing your head, and not saying those two little words in the Pledge is akin to tapping an old land mine with your foot. You’re pretty sure it won’t explode, but there’s still that one chance…
Still, this is the point B——–, the Pledge of Allegiance and the Prayer (for the Episcopal church, the church I grew up in, it’s the Lord Prayer or one of the various creeds, for everyone else it’s free verse), at least in East Texas, are two passages every individual is expected to memorize and recite daily, or else temptation and liberalism spring eternal malevolence. Everyday in school we prayed. Everyday in school we recited the Pledge of Allegiance. While I have, since my understanding of myself as an atheist, refused to pray, no matter how long I have lived I love reciting the Pledge.
This may be in part because I am a patriot. While I do detest the idea of nationalism, like religion it has the capacity to justify murder and chaos for the sake of “national liberty,” I do respect the fact that I do possess agency in no small part because of the sacrifice of brave men and women before me who gave their lives, and in some cases more, so that I could write and express my opinion and lifestyle without fear of physical or legal retribution. I believe in America, to quote The Godfather, because it has produced great authors, great thinkers and inventors, outstanding military leaders, some wonderful Presidents, and an idea of what life can be. But I won’t deny there are plenty of problems as well. Our national guilt is manifested in the legacy of genocide that is the expansion of the West and the slaughter of the Native Americans, and Slavery will hang from our necks until the end of time.
What many people don’t realize, or else they do and try to deny they know it, is that the phrase “under god” was an addition to the Pledge of Allegiance. When the Pledge first existed the line wasn’t there at all. It wasn’t until the 1950s, you know what, I was averse to doing this but I’ll go ahead. USHistory.Org has a wonderful synopsis of the history of the Pledge and I’ll just copy it for you so you can get an idea:
The Pledge of Allegiance was written in August 1892 by the socialist minister Francis Bellamy (1855-1931). It was originally published in The Youth’s Companion on September 8, 1892. Bellamy had hoped that the pledge would be used by citizens in any country.
In its original form it read:
“I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
In 1923, the words, “the Flag of the United States of America” were added. At this time it read:
“I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
In 1954, in response to the Communist threat of the times, President Eisenhower encouraged Congress to add the words “under God,” creating the 31-word pledge we say today. Bellamy’s daughter objected to this alteration. Today it reads:
“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Section 4 of the Flag Code states:
The Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag: “I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”, should be rendered by standing at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart. When not in uniform men should remove any non-religious headdress with their right hand and hold it at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart. Persons in uniform should remain silent, face the flag, and render the military salute.”
The original Bellamy salute, first described in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, who authored the original Pledge, began with a military salute, and after reciting the words “to the flag,” the arm was extended toward the flag.
At a signal from the Principal the pupils, in ordered ranks, hands to the side, face the Flag. Another signal is given; every pupil gives the flag the military salute — right hand lifted, palm downward, to a line with the forehead and close to it. Standing thus, all repeat together, slowly, “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands; one Nation indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.” At the words, “to my Flag,” the right hand is extended gracefully, palm upward, toward the Flag, and remains in this gesture till the end of the affirmation; whereupon all hands immediately drop to the side.
The Youth’s Companion, 1892
Shortly thereafter, the pledge was begun with the right hand over the heart, and after reciting “to the Flag,” the arm was extended toward the Flag, palm-down.
In World War II, the salute too much resembled the Nazi salute, so it was changed to keep the right hand over the heart throughout.
I understand that I exist in a nation largely populated by Christians, but majority does not indicate unanimous opinion. I may just be an asshole atheist, a godless heathen, but I believe it’s inappropriate in a public setting to assume that everyone will be copasetic (marvy fab ya dig) with your particular religious beliefs. The conflict with leading a Christian prayer is that it leaves too many opportunities available for alienation. Some Catholics may object to a Baptist reading the prayer. An Episcopal, an offshoot of Anglicanism which is itself a veiled clone of Catholicism, may object to the fact that the prayer uttered was not the Lord’s Prayer or the Nicene Creed or the Apostles creed. This is an argument often employed by amateur atheists (as if we’re some sort of sports team, go ATOMS!) and while it’s valid, I feel it misses a more important aspect of the argument.
It is the assumption that everyone in the room will agree to the prayer that is most insulting and humiliating.
Now B——I know your next point. You’ll argue couldn’t the same be said of the Pledge?
The individuals graduating that day were American citizens, as were their families. The Pledge of Allegiance is exactly what it says it is: a pledge. It is a promise to the government and the philosophical idea of the United states, that you promise your loyalty (allegiance) in times of prosperity as well as periods of conflict. It is a dedication to your country that you will work always to aid your nation and make sure that when your life is done, the country you leave behind is one of liberty for everyone. I know I’m sounding like a fucking NPR special B——-, but let me finish on this last point. It is suspect that we force children to take the Pledge before they are emotionally and intellectually ready to take it, because when they say the Pledge as children they cannot comprehend the symbolic gesture they are making. I doubt many people, when they say the pledge, understand fully the weight of the words coming out of their mouth. For them it’s just something you say without thinking; the routine is numbing and eliminates the significance of the act, and thus many people would simply say there’s no point or difference between saying a pledge or saying a prayer.
I love my country and so I was willing to say (most of) the Pledge on the day graduated. I was willing to promise my loyalty to this country. However I was not willing to promise my loyalty to a god that I don’t believe in.
The words we speak aloud possess more symbolic weight than the ones we have in our head, for they are entirely alone and have promised nothing. It’s the little choices B——, the words we speak aloud that matter more than the words we think, because they have real implications about who we are as citizens and individuals.
If you get the chance, to take part of your graduation ceremony, even if there are crying babies, it is pretty fun to make that walk across the stage.
Sincerely, yours in the best of confidence and support,
Joshua “Jammer” Smith
P.S. I’ve included a link to the USHistory.org page in case you want to make sure I’m not blowing smoke.