Monday, June 29, 2015

A Tale of Two Flags

Last fall, I had the pleasure of traveling in Bavaria. I could tell story after story about the things I saw and heard. Instead, I want to tell a very short story about something I did not see. From Oktoberfest tents to Marienplatz. From the hills of Fussen to the Munich airport itself.

I did not see the swastika flag. This is hardly a shock. The German Strafgesetzbuch explicitly bars its use throughout the nation, and -- let's be honest -- not without good reason. The flag was used as the national flag of Germany from 1933-1945 and is almost universally recognized throughout the world as a symbol of hate, intolerance and totalitarianism.

In Bavaria, I saw few modern flags of Germany. I saw plenty of Bavarian flags, a regional symbol used since 1180. I did not hear anyone say that the swastika should fly over or in proximity to the Neues Rathaus -- new town hall -- in the middle of of town. No one said "see, it's part of our heritage."

They see it as a symbol of hate. It was worn on the sleeves of many of their forebears... and yet, they do not try to defend it. They are not guilty. They simply see it for what it is. History has hardly been buried. It's easy to find spots in town where the history of the Nazis is on display, though simply as an acknowledgment of fact. Yes, right there in Hofbrauhaus, Hitler rallied Bavarians to his cause. Indeed, Munich was very much a center of Nazism. Munich does not run from this, nor does it run from the events of 1972 when terrorists attacked the Israeli team in the Olympic Village.

You cannot escape history. You can only be accountable for it and move ahead, hopefully having learned from missteps. The facts of the past in Bavaria are going to be there forever, and it's to the Germans' credit -- and in this case Bavarians' -- that they have not only moved ahead with accountability, but have built one of the world's most progressive, accepting societies. And they have the economy to boot (at least for now, as Greece teeters...)

Where did I actually last see a swastika flag? Pineville, NC.

There, in an antique store, in the back, was a room filled with WWII items, but overwhelmingly Nazi. It was uncomfortable. This wasn't a museum. This was a place where you could walk out with a full uniform of an SS officer. Try wearing that on Halloween even around your inappropriate friends and see where it gets you.

So when the national narrative turned to the Confederate battle flag last week, my thoughts immediately went to those two places: Pineville (deep in the land that was the Confederacy) and Bavaria (deep in the heart of what was one of the world's most overt hate-spreading groups). The differences were apparent.

Both areas have a flag that was (and still is) a symbol of hate.

One got rid of theirs. One has spent more than 100 years saying the symbol it used for about five years is a key part of its heritage.

I don't care if your great-great-granddad was Stonewall Jackson himself: you have to accept that the Confederate battle flag has become a symbol of hate to a significant swath of the American population, across all racial lines. Folks, the Klan wheels it out at rallies.

I feel like not accepting that is showing an accountability gap. The Bavarians went right at it and prospered. For some reason, the South has needed a push.

I am pleased that public institutions have decided to take down the flag, acknowledging the fact that it stirs hateful passions in some and a feeling of being unwelcome in others. Taking down the flag does not end racism in this country by any score. It probably won't even "convert" a racist. That said, it makes it just a little harder to be overtly racist. You don't hear a lot of people talking about  "jew-ing someone down" at the car dealer anymore. Mainly, this isn't because people aren't anti-Semitic. But not tolerating that sort of colloquialism -- even the joking kind -- makes people stop and think. It becomes less acceptable over time and, slowly, an entrenched or institutionalized form of hate has been removed. It takes time.

Removing the Confederate battle flag is the first step to that sort of move throughout the country. It relegates use of the flag to the museums, the true historians and, yes, the true racists. I like my racists easy to identify, by the way.

Where I think we messed up, though, is the overreaction. It does bother me that numerous online retailers immediately pulled all merchandise bearing the flag and associated imagery. To me, if a private citizen or business wants to make its money of this symbol, we will all vote with our wallets. Instead, we've started driving this business underground, away from the scrutiny it may deserve.

The backlash in some corners has also had its problems. Discussion of whether to remove the flag from the roof of the General Lee in Dukes of Hazzard reruns seems counterproductive. We cannot erase the use of the flag there and, honestly, nor should we. To be accountable as a society, we need to know how we used these symbols in the mainstream. It's like running from slavery or segregation: these things happened. We have to own it and deal with it.

Similarly, I even heard someone say that we should ban Gone With the Wind if we're going to ban the flag. Apparently, this person thinks hate groups are getting together to watch Rhett Butler try to tame Scarlett O'Hara, instead of putting on Triumph of the Will. One is an epic 20th Century movie made in the context of its time, and one was created for propaganda purposes and overtly meant to drive hate. Bit of a difference.

Simply put: we obviously have issues facing our own country's past. Southerners. Northerners. Everyone. We need to take a lesson from the Germans: face it, accept it, deal with it, learn from it. It doesn't make you weak. It doesn't make you stupid. It makes you thoughtful.

It makes you take a new step toward building a better world.

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