Local View: What's 'un-American' isn't always clear
Two different people hurled that phrase in response to my Facebook post about a protest my wife and I attended in our neighborhood recently (“Confederate controversy: Crowd gathers to protest Lakeside man's Confederate flag,” July 14).
Same phrase, but two opposite notions.
The occasion was the birthday of a Confederate Civil War general who later became the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. During the war, he oversaw the massacre of several hundred mostly Black Union soldiers who had surrendered at Fort Pillow in Tennessee, along the Mississippi River. (Funny, I don’t remember Mark Twain mentioning the event in his idyllic “Life on the Mississippi.”)
Our Lakeside neighbor flies his Confederate flag on every major Confederate commemoration; on the opposite side of his front door the American flag hangs.
There has been a lot written about the Confederate flag lately, including in our own News Tribune. Even a very convincing, to my mind, article on the flag by a local university historian was the subject of a vehement rebuttal (the vehemence seemed equally aimed against the writer). Either the Confederate flag represents a commitment to slavery, of the white suppression of Black people, or it doesn’t. To my mind it does. To my mind, the Confederate flag is hate speech.
So my wife and I stood across the street from the competing flags on our neighbors’ porch with our signs, mine a homemade “Black Lives Matter” poster that has been in our front window since the killing of George Floyd. The popular ‘80s TV comedy, “The Dukes of Hazzard” with its iconic “General Lee” car, notwithstanding, the Confederate flag and the U.S. flag seemed to be competing on the porch because they represent two sides that were at war against each other, the soldiers of each killing the soldiers of the other. To the Union, the Confederacy was treasonous.
I wonder what other country in the world flies flags of enemies and erects monuments to traitors.
“It’s un-American!” One of my Facebook friends invoked his former military service to defend the neighbor’s right to fly the Confederate flag as a matter of the man’s freedom of expression. To my friend, “it’s un-American” to protest against our neighbor’s freedom.
For another Facebook friend, “it’s un-American” to fly the Confederate flag because, to him, it represents treason, oppression, and white supremacy.
Not everyone in the neighborhood joined the 100 or so protesters. A young man in a large silver pickup pulled up and shouted, “There are 50 more trucks coming to mow you down!” He was flying an American flag from the bed of his truck. Evidently mowing people down is one of our American values.
The 50 more trucks turned out to be two. Later, a second pickup with an American flag tailed the silver one. The first driver was going up and down the street at various times. Later, a third pickup drove by; the driver gunned his engine, evidently in protest of the protest, speeding up Glenwood Avenue. No doubt he wanted us to be impressed — or frightened. So “American” of him.
“It’s un-American!” To attempt an answer, I invoke Martin Luther’s relentless question from his catechism, which I memorized during confirmation classes years ago: “What does this mean?” Just as there seem to be at least two competing narratives about the Confederate flag, there are competing narratives about what the American flag means.
After coming home, my wife mentioned that her good friend, who also attended the protest, told her that a mixed-race couple with children lives just down the block from the house flying the Confederate flag. Black children and teenagers were also among the crowd of protesters. I wonder if anyone has ever thought to ask those children what the Confederate flag means to them.
The Rev. David Tryggestad of Duluth is a retired pastor and a regular contributor to the News Tribune Opinion page.