Callous or Callow: Waving the Confederate Flag at Bryn Mawr College

Rebel/Dixie flag, the one that started all the controversy a few years back.
Rebel/Dixie flag, the one that started all the controversy a few years back.

Callous or merely callow?

That's the question that has roiled the otherwise idyllic campus of Bryn Mawr College recently. Apparently two students tacked up a Confederate flag in the hallway next to their dorm rooms and controversy ensued.

After the uproar the two students apologized, issuing an email that read in part, "Our intention was never to cause the pain the community is currently suffering." They went on: "We apologize for hanging an object seen as a symbol of hate for many and for the subsequent divide and suffering of the Bryn Mawr community." One of the young women is from Texas and the other from Georgia, and their intention, so they said, was simply to demonstrate their Southern pride.

I make no claim to know the sincerity of that apology, but I'm inclined to take the students at their word. I believe that they probably were unaware that the Confederate flag was, and remains, the symbol of a failed nation created for the purpose of perpetuating (and expanding) slavery. I'm voting callow, not callous.

There is certainly a kind of racism at work here, but I suspect not the kind that offended other Bryn Mawr women. It isn't about the racial views of two individuals, I suspect, but rather the racism of collective memory. These two women merely echoed a central piece of Southern mythology: The Confederacy, the Civil War it started, and the flag that flew over the losing side of it wasn't really about slavery.

The myth has been around for nearly 150 years -- it started roughly a week after Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox -- and it has rooted deeply in the national imagination.

Let's be clear: Abraham Lincoln did not prosecute the war to end slavery, at least not initially. But Southerners started it to protect their "peculiar institution." Texans, for example, were quite sure that ending slavery would be a disaster for their state and for the South as a whole. They seceded from the Union in 1861 because they believed

"that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding States."

After the war was over, Southerners worked furiously to re-write the purpose and meaning of it. Not an act of rebellion against the legitimately elected government of the United States, not an insurrection designed to protect slavery from the advance of freedom, the Confederacy morphed instead into a glorious "lost cause" fought for vaporous abstractions like "Southern honor" and political fatuities like "states rights."

In this way, the memory of the Civil War was scrubbed clean of slavery and scrubbed clean too of the 4 million slaves the South fought so desperately to keep in bondage. Refusing to confront its own history, white Southerners invented a "heritage" for themselves instead. Thus did it become possible to wave the Stars and Bars at NASCAR events without any shame at all.

Perhaps we should not be astonished that two women educated in Southern states -- and educated well enough, apparently, to gain entrance to one of the nation's elite liberal arts colleges -- could in 2014 have failed to learn about Southern history and still be waving the flag of the glorious lost cause.

After all, in 2010 Virginia governor Bob McDonnell announced the creation of a "Confederate History Month" which made no mention of slavery at all. And in 2011, the cream of Charleston, South Carolina, society celebrated the 150th anniversary of secession by dressing up in their antebellum finest and throwing a fancy plantation ball. Makes you wonder what students in Texas and Georgia actually learn about each state's commitment to slavery.

Southerners love their "heritage" because it has enabled many of them not to confront their history. Those two young women with their Confederate flag and Southern pride had to travel all the way to Bryn Mawr to learn that history.

Steven Conn teaches history at Ohio State. His most recent book is Americans Against the City: Anti-Urbanism in the 20th Century.