Flag as inappropriate: Confederate presence in subcultural contexts.

Curator's Note

Recent controversies in the United States about the removal of Confederate monuments and the march in Charlottesville brought some symbols of disputed heritage and southern pride into the international spotlight. One of the significant icons of those ideas is that of the Confederate battle flag; commonly, if erroneously, referred to as ‘the Confederate flag’. The flag’s history as a political symbol as well as as an emblem of ‘confederate chic’ and its presence in popular cultural contexts has been well recorded, but outside the United States the flag became a well-used symbol of ‘Elvis, the American South and individual rebellion’ through the European music scenes and to this day remains so.

Much of this presence can be traced to the 1970s rockabilly revival. The confederate battle flag fitted with the themes of rebellion embraced by the Rockabilly Rebs/Rebels. From Ray Campi’s bass with the flag painted on the back to Matchbox’s appearance on Top of the Pops playing Rockabilly Rebel with confederate uniform and the flag as part of the costume and set, the flag became a significant presence in the scene and was read as an identifier of rebelliousness and a celebration of Southern music. (This use of the flag was evident in other areas of popular culture at the time from Smokie and the Bandit to the internationally successful The Dukes of Hazzard television show).

The flag is still in evidence at some events, they can be seen hung in accommodation windows at weekend festivals and at times are paired with other flags which complicate analysis of the motivations of those displaying the flag. A Confederate flag shown beside a ‘Come and Take it’ flag connotes different things than one shows beside a flag memorialising British soldiers from the First World War. For some people the signifiers of the flag go no further than rebellion and rockabilly music; the geographic remove from the United States facilitates this position more that it would in the US.

Anecdotally, the last few years seem to have seen a lessening of the flag’s presence. The evocations of ‘the America and individual rebellion’ are present in other ways, western wear or Sun Records shirts for example. The recent events in North Carolina may hasten a move away from a ‘neutral’ or passive co-opting of the flag into this current, subcultural context.

Comments

Joshua Jackson's picture

The Post-South

A lot of what Paul’s saying about the Confederate Flag falls within a critical framework that Southern Studies scholars use to understand the role of southern symbols after World War II. That understanding is framed in terms of the “post-South,” i.e., the place the South became during postmodernity, which is to say, Americanized, globalized, and otherwise absorbed, exported, and assimilated into the culture of the rest of the United States and globe, especially at a time when globalization started to run its course. For a more comprehensive introduction to the term, see Martyn Bone’s entry for the term “Postsouthern” in _Keywords for Southern Studies_ (2016).

This process of divorcing symbols of the South from their historical roots, and particularly the Confederate Flag and other antebullum imagery, could also be viewed as part of a trend that John Egerton calls “The Americanization of the South,” which might also be said to entail the “Southernization of the Globe.”

What I think Paul brings forth with this post, especially in his discussion of the Confederate Flag’s appropriation around the globe, are implications of the Southernization of the Globe. I think we spend less time engaging in discussions about the Southernization of the Globe because we, and by “we,” I mean Southern Studies scholars like me, prefer to talk about how the monolithic South doesn’t *really* exist, especially as it’s portrayed in popular media, and that there are exceptions to the rule of blanket conservatism in the US South. This pivot gives us more room to talk about people and texts that aren’t all white in our scholarship. However, doing this important work may have created a bit of a blind spot when it comes to noticing how symbols of the American South have been appropriated abroad. Which is why I think that dealing with the Southernization of the Globe — especially if it can be traced to the insurgent populism (and surprising popularity) of far-right and alt-right political subcultures in Europe — should be a consideration for everyone thinking about the cultural context of the Confederate Flag today.

Paul Glavey's picture

I’m not familiar with the

I’m not familiar with the idea of ‘Postsouthern’, thank you for the reference. What I have found is there is a sense of plausible deniability on the part of many people here (UK/Europe), about the use of the Confederate flag. The geographic remove is offered by some as a justification for its continued use, like the internationalisation of the flag cuts the connections with its origin. Others mitigate its presence by pointing to a love of rock and roll/rhythm and blues/blues music as evidence of no racist intent (this can be found on various forum discussion boards). One possibe point of comparison of symbols and subcultures is the adoption of the swastika by punks. Starting with Dick Hedbidge’s Subculture: The meaning of style, you can find discussions of how the symbol was appropriated; used as a means to shock and, “within an alternative subcultural context, its primary value and appeal derived precisely from its lack of meaning: from its potential for deceit.” (p117). The use of the swastika in punk has moved on from there and in certain contexts has become a truncated reference and the signifiers of the symbol stop at punk and never go back as far as the original usage. For some this seems to be the same, either as a deliberate refusal to engage with the original context of the flag or not. With the Confederate flag there is arguably a less immediate, deliberately offensive usage. In some ways the flag has remained a constant; as a signifier of America, rebellion etc,and the political climate has come round to offering it fuller significance. The photograph in the slides of the flag patches was taken in August in France at a ‘retro’ festival which had rock and roll/rockabilly bands playing but was more mixed (vintage cars, motorbikes, stalls etc). The stall was selling a range of Harley Davidson branded patches etc, stars and stripes bandanas, handbags with sugar skull pattern and then along side all that a board of patches for the Front National and Neo Nazi symbols. I have never seen those symbols at explicitly rockabilly events but it shows the overlap that has emerged (or become more explicit perhaps) in some quarters with these symbols. The flag is also flown at some sports events in Ireland. As Cork is known as the ‘Rebel County’, and wear red jerseys, some of their supporters bring the flag to gaelic games matches. Over the summer there was an explicit call post-Charlottesville to stop this: https://www.irishtimes.com/sport/gaelic-games/cork-gaa-officers-condemn-flying-of-confederate-flag-1.3188344

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