Consistency and Slavery: New Flags for Everybody!

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David Boaz of the Cato Institute has come out in opposition to the Mississippi state flag. The Mississippi flag, you see, includes in one corner the St. Andrew’s cross, in particular, the battle flag of the Confederate States of America. (For more details on the dispute, from the side which Boaz opposes, visit FreeMississippi.org.

How enlightened and progressive of Boaz. Perhaps the United States can emulate the United Kingdom, which, in 1954, banned display of the Irish tricolor (the green, white, and orange flag of the Republic of Ireland so familiar around St. Patrick’s Day) in the English-occupied territory of Northern Ireland.

In his article, Boaz opines that

As long as the violence and cruelty of slavery remain a living memory to millions of Americans, symbols of slavery should not be displayed by American governments. Those who want to honor their brave ancestors who fought for Southern independence should fly the Confederate flag themselves, tend to Confederate graves and hold Southern Heritage picnics. They should not ask their fellow citizens to walk into a state capitol under a banner that proclaims the superiority of some citizens to others.

Ironically, I received a request for funding from the Cato Institute last night at home. It was slick, printed on glossy paper, and asked me if I wanted "to work to restore freedom in America."

Inside of the brochure was a photo of reporters thronging Christine Todd Whitman, head of Bush II’s EPA and former governor of New Jersey, in the Hayek Auditorium at the Cato headquarters on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, DC.

I’m writing a PhD on Hayek. Christie Whitman is no Hayek. In short, I ripped the brochure up neatly and threw it out. And reading David Boaz’s piece on the Mississippi flag makes me glad — so very glad — that I did so.

A question for Mr. Boaz: what flags flew while slaves were imported to the United States from the time the first slaves were brought to the American colonies until the South became a separate nation, say from the arrival of Africans at Jamestown, via Dutch traders, in 1619, until 1861?

Answer: the Union Jack (the British flag, or the St. George’s Cross — the English flag) and the Stars and Stripes.

Another question for Mr. Boaz: what ports did American slave ships call home?

Answer: Boston and other New England ports. Boston had an open-air slave market, where slaves were auctioned. The flag which flew over Boston, and has flown over Boston uninterrupted since roughly 1789, is the Stars and Stripes. The fact of Yankee slave trading, by the way, is not exactly "revisionist," although it is largely hidden due to its embarrassment. About a year ago, Yankee Magazine ran a feature by a man descended from a Boston slave auctioneer, describing the man’s quest to find out where in the city the slave market had been. The reason that Yankees shipped slaves to America, but didn’t use slave labor, is economics: southern plantation agriculture required large numbers of laborers, while the rocky soil of New England did not.

Additionally, recall that the "three-fifths compromise" was a part of the US Constitution of 1789, and the US Supreme Court — under that Stars and Stripes, mind you — upheld the legality of the Fugitive Slave laws in the famous case of Dred Scott. Because of the federal government’s protection of slavery, Northern abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and Lysander Spooner argued that the federal constitution was a deal with the Devil. Garrison, for example, urged the North to secede so as not to be associated with slavery.

If Boaz is consistent, the Stars and Stripes, Union Jack, and St. George’s Cross must be regarded as symbols of slavery. As late as 1964, the Stars and Stripes also "proclaimed the superiority of some citizens to others," especially those who lived under Jim Crow. The doctrine was known as "separate but equal."

Apparently unlike David Boaz, some Americans do not pledge allegiance to the Stars and Stripes because of the perceived racism of American society (the pledge, by the way, was written by a socialist).

Forgetting slavery for a moment, since the US Civil Rights Commission recently urged schools to drop American Indian mascots, perhaps the Commission should also call for a redesign of the Stars and Stripes, given the horrible way the federal government has treated the American Indians over the years.

Perhaps Boaz would contend that the United States has stopped "proclaiming the superiority of some citizens to others," and that to redesign or abolish the Stars and Stripes is therefore a mistake.

This argument, however, would undercut Boaz’s opposition to Confederate history. Given that the CSA ceased to exist after its military occupation by the USA, the CSA certainly has stopped committing whatever alleged evils it committed in the past.

Slavery was legal in the USA, and it was legal in the CSA. Slavery, then, cannot mandate the obliteration of Confederate symbols while not at the same time mandating the obliteration of the symbols of the USA as well.

Will Boaz now call for the elimination of Old Glory? To do so would be just as foolish as what Boaz is now urging in Mississippi.

Boaz and the flag-banning crowd whose bandwagon he has joined distort history and perform a civic disservice by following the path of tyrants who outlaw unapproved symbols. To be precise, the error in outlawing the display of Confederate, Irish, or American flags is that such an action serves only to give credibility to the notion that the past is a simple matter of good and evil. An examination of history, however, should dispel such a childish notion.

Human history is populated by human beings. Human beings being human, they are sinful, fallible, and sometimes evil. The notion that every aspect of the Confederacy was evil — that every man, woman and child living below the Mason-Dixon line was evil — is patently stupid.

Even if such a notion were not patently stupid, in other words, even if it were true that every Southern man, woman and child was a demon incarnate, occupied every waking hour with the torture and degradation of black slaves, the obliteration of Confederate symbols accomplishes nothing. To abolish all things Confederate cannot change the past, and it cannot in any way aid a reasoned debate over the nature and history of slavery whether in the Arab world or South America — which were the destinations for the vast majority of Africans who were sold into slavery — or in America (the destination for a comparatively small percentage of Africans sold into slavery).

Americans have a skewed view of slavery because of the accidental fact of the racial element. As noted on Africana.com,

The distinction between slave and master in Africa was not, as in the Americas, typically based on a distinction in race. But indicators such as name, language, scarification, dress, and manners all distinguished the identity and social status of slaves from those of their masters.

Africans could not base their ownership of other Africans on the distinction of race. Despite this fact, Africans enslaved other Africans. Race, then, is an accidental, as opposed to an inherent or necessary element of slavery; slavery can exist even when the master and the slave are of the same race. The American fixation on the racial element of slavery, apparently shared by Boaz, cannot aid in understanding the nature of slavery, as opposed to the small portion of "the history of human slavery" which is "the history of slavery in America." (Perhaps the American view of slavery is simply a part of the general American fixation on all things American, as if Americans are the only people ever to have walked the earth).

Sadly, it must be noted that the end of slavery in Europe and America did not bring an end to slavery in Africa:

the world markets for slave labor and for the goods produced by slaves remained strong in the middle and late nineteenth century, and these markets supported slavery and slave trading in Africa. The European powers poised to invade the continent pointed to the persistence of African slavery to justify colonization. Thus the Berlin Conference of 1885, convened as an anti-slavery meeting, in fact set the rules for the European conquest of Africa.

Between 1890 and 1940 the European colonial powers strengthened their grip on African lands and African societies and preached a doctrine of anti-slavery. The result was not, however, immediate emancipation. Large-scale slave raiding came to an end because the European powers had monopolized the use of armed force. But slavery itself continued for millions of Africans until the eve of World War II.

The notion that slavery ended with the Abe Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation is utterly mistaken. Instead, Africa spent the next 100 years under the boot of European imperialism.

Additionally, regarding the slave trade in the Arab world and India, Africana.com notes that

Slave exports across the Indian Ocean, the Sahara, and the Red Sea reached their peak in about 1850, then declined at varying rates until the end of the century. During this time, some enslaved Africans were carried across the Red Sea to build an expanded pilgrimage site at Mecca, in Saudi Arabia; others were carried on steamers through the Suez Canal, bound for Istanbul and Izmir.

Will David Boaz seek to redesign or abolish the flags and symbols of Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and most of the European nations as well, due to their historic connections to the slave trade and the colonization of Africa? Don’t hold your breath.

Mr. Dieteman is an attorney in Erie, Pennsylvania, and a PhD candidate in philosophy at The Catholic University of America.

© 2001 David Dieteman

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