The Confederate Flag: Public Opinion Is Often A Petty Thing

petty flag (4)A few years ago, I published an exhaustive multi-part article on Lynyrd Skynyrd and their iconoclastic singer and lyricist, the late Ronnie Van Zant.  The main thrust of the piece was that “Sweet Home Alabama” was not a racist song at all (the key is in the last verse, plus a line Ronnie throws away at the end), but an attempt by Southern hippies to reject the years of bigotry and hatred and murder weighing down their culture, while still maintaining a Southern sense of identity.  This gave rise to the 1970s liberated redneck (see also: the Allman Brothers, Jimmy Carter). One section concerned an issue that has recently reemerged in the public consciousness: the Confederate Flag, which Lynyrd Skynyrd and other bands of the time used as a stage backdrop.

My defense remains the same: until fairly recently, the display of the rebel flag simply meant regional pride.  The Southern Cross on one’s baseball hat was equivalent to a Milwaukee Brewers or Boston Celtics logo.  To state that the Confederate Flag = racism is about as ignorant as stating all Muslims are terrorists or all Christians bomb abortion clinics.
But public opinion is a funny thing.  Accuracy is not necessarily a requirement.  Your average Southerner woke up one morning to discover that the good ol’ Stars & Bars, which he never thought twice about, is actually a powerful symbol of hatred and must be destroyed.
As usual, the PC Police took a good idea (let’s try to make amends for slavery) and pushed it into the realm of idiocy.  In 2015, after some hick moron kid shot up a church in South Carolina, the jaws of most intelligent folks hit the ground when the 1970s TV show The Dukes of Hazzard was removed from cable syndication.
Someone out there is offended by The Dukes Of Hazzard?  Bo and Luke and Daisy and Uncle Jesse were stone racists because of that stupid fucking car?  Boss Hogg and Enos and Roscoe P. Coltrane were busy lynchin’ when they weren’t chasing the Duke boys through the swamp?  Really?  How about the movie, is that offensive too?  Don’t forget, the part of Uncle Jesse was played by well-known liberal pothead Willie Nelson.
A quick Google image search reveals the Confederate Flag decorating album covers and promotional photos of The Rolling Stones, Tom Petty, Billy Idol, Pantera, and Johnny Cash.  Neil Young even named an LP American Stars ‘n Bars.  Come on, throw your CDs on the fire!  Let’s get those boycotts underway!
The Tom Petty photo speaks volumes.  In 1985, Petty released his sixth studio record, Southern Accents. The album peaked at #7, thanks to its hit single and video, “Don’t Come Around Here No More.”  Several of the LP’s tracks contain lyrics about the South, without directly mentioning slavery.  The Confederate flag was nowhere to be seen on the artwork, but the front cover of the 1985 Southern Accents Tour program featured a large Stars & Bars with Petty’s face superimposed in the center.
Viewed today, the picture gives a sense of disconnect: What the heck is a nice middle of the road apple pie singer like Tom Petty doing in front of a symbol of intolerance?  Does Tom Petty strike anyone as a loudmouthed, boorish, good-ol-boy “who’s ready for some WHITE GUYS!” jerkoff shitkicker douchenozzle like Hank Williams Jr?  Of course not.  Petty has the familiar persona of a laid back, bemused, moderate-to-left-leaning classic rocker with a broad mainstream appeal.  He has never courted controversy or used inflamed rhetoric to sell records or push his political views. Your mom probably has a Tom Petty tape, maybe even the one with that song about rolling a joint.  Petty grew up in Florida surrounded by the rebel flag and has no misconceptions as to its meaning.  And 30 years ago, it meant I’m from the South.
The image of Tom Petty’s face on a Confederate Flag (unthinkable for any musician to use today) caused not one ripple in 1985.  No protests were held and nobody was offended.  The thousands of concertgoers who bought a Southern Accents Tour program never gave a second thought to what was on the front.  Petty’s career sailed on unharmed, more successful tours and #1 LPs (and, unfortunately, Jeff Lynne) in his future.
The photo was nearly forgotten until it was dredged up in the wake of the current controversy.  Petty was forced to issue an apologetic press statement, calling the image “a dumb idea.”  It may look that way in 2015, but in 1985 it was just good marketing.
Then again, a lot can change in 30 years.  When the Ku Klux Klan are the most vocal supporters of the rebel flag, the damn thing’s ready for the trash heap.  The sobering fact is that the world looks at the Southern United States and still sees racism, which reflects badly on the rest of America because we allow this to happen within our borders.  But even a redneck of average I.Q. has to admit the battle is over and they lost.
The Civil War was an armed uprising against the U.S. Government, the one that’s in power right now, and that government has been allowing the South to keep its little trinkets and openly display words of dissent, like “The South Will Rise Again,” for the last 150 years.  Whether or not the people of Alabama, Mississippi and the rest like it, they live in the same country we do, and that country has standards of decency to uphold.  So love it or leave it, Cletus.  After all, a flag is just a piece of cloth.  It’s not like anyone is saying your entire heritage is a lie.
So then the matter is settled.  The Confederate Flag = slavery.  Take it down.  Racism will continue under a different symbol and reparations are still a long way off, but we’re headed in the right direction.  Now all we have to do is to get rid of Old Glory.  Our entire nation was built on the backs of slaves (remember, folks in the North owned them too), so let’s ditch that offensive rag next.
Did someone say hypocrisy? 
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