A couple of weeks ago I walked past a man wearing a shirt that read, “God Bless Our Liberties”. A nice enough sentiment. But below, it continued, “And Its Defenders”, accompanying the sentiment with a portrait of Jefferson Davis and several Confederate generals.
I come from northern California, where the secessionist State of Jefferson represents one of the pleasanter versions of right-wing politics, and so am no stranger to seeing Confederate flags on cars and windows. But there remains something revolting about the fact that there are people willing to proudly use the imagery of a secessionist government based on the enslavement of other human beings to talk about liberty.
Of course the people who trumpet the virtues of the Confederacy and its generals—traitors who plunged the nation into war in defence of their “peculiar institution”, chattel slavery—like to pretend that the Civil War was fought over “state’s rights”.
And that’s true, to an extent. But there was really only one of those rights that mattered; one of them that was essential to the culture and economy of the South’s land-owning class; one that was the basis both for our federal system and for the bloodiest contestation of its viability: slavery. Grievances associated with the “rights” of slave-holders were front and centre in the secessionist writings associated with the Civil War, with other issues serving as proxies for discussing that underlying concern.
If you’re opposed to universal healthcare, the regulation of pollution, the protection of workers’ rights, or the equitable distribution of wealth, there are many ways of registering your disapproval.
And so when you make a deliberate choice to eschew all the rest of the language and imagery at your disposal and wear a shirt glorifying the Confederacy, you are saying something despicable about the value you place on the liberty and humanity of members of our national community. If such a person believes they are not—snidely, with an ugly wink and nod—making a favourable statement about slavery and the racial hierarchy it engineered, they have either crawled from beneath a rock or are living in a state of self-imposed ignorance.
For it is universally known that slavery as it existed in North America was a system which allowed one group of racially-defined people to seize other racially-defined people, and own them as they would an animal, a piece of furniture, or a chunk of land. It was a system which stripped away all of the things that make people human, and allowed those individuals who took possession of their fellow human beings to beat, rape, humiliate, and wring their labour from them. It was a system designed to destroy people as human beings and leave them with nothing more than a physical husk around a possessed body and tortured soul.
I cannot fathom what purpose people think they are serving when they favourably invoke such a system by equating it with the protection of liberties, but I am sure that it is a deeply immoral one that is deeply disrespectful of the trauma that slavery inflicted on our nation.