Memes like these speak truth by means of well-spun lies that invoke passion. That’s the lure of these; they’re evocative. It’s also their weakness, and a grave flaw it is too. Read on and I’ll explain.
Things I’ve seen on CNN recently:
Pictures of hurricane devastation… from a different hurricane; this one did little damage. Pictures of fire-burned fields… but not from Brazil, where it was rainforest on fire. Pictures of floating garbage… but not in the Caribbean, which is where we’re talking about.
Not only do the images sometimes mislead, they provide a way to attack the story without bothering to consider the substance of it. Obviously, if the picture is fake –and doesn’t admit it– then the writers wouldn’t shrink from faking other things, and therefore can’t be trusted.
That’s the logic that this practice provokes, and it’s dangerous because it’s true: We can’t actually trust the major news media to tell the unvarnished truth.
And yet we need to, particularly in these troubled times. We need news we can trust implicitly, not some tale spun to inflame our passion. That goes double for memes because there’s so very little substance behind them already.
(The sensitive might stop reading now. Beyond this point requires confronting extremely painful concepts.)
In this particular instance, there are two major factual errors that, taken together, work to conceal an evocative truth that works against the intent of the meme. The core sentiment is true, but it has a weakness — and so the deliberate lie that masks the flaw rather than dealing with it directly, openly, honestly.
The first and most obvious lie is crediting William Thompson as the creator of the Confederate Flag. He was not; he was merely a newspaper editor that pushed its adoption. Best I can tell, the suggestion originated with a smuggl— uh… blockade runner named Driscoll, and was seized upon by General Beauregard and his cronies — one of whom was this Thompson. It’s true, there’s some debate on the question by historians. But it’s agreed that the military consensus in the Confederacy was that the original Confederate Flag was too easily confused with the Union’s Stars and Stripes and should probably be replaced.
Which brings us to the second lie. In the background of this meme we see the famous ‘Southern Cross’; as it happens, that’s not the flag that was being pushed by Thompson. It was but the top quarter; the body of the flag was to be a stainless field of white. This was emblematic of three causes, not just one: first, that the object of the Confederacy was an end to the war; second, that their cause was stainless and just, suitable for the knights of old; third, that the country was one ruled by and for whites, just as Thompson says.
It’s important to note that last; it’s a fundamental truth obscured by the lie, and we mustn’t lose sight of it: Thompson was a popular man, and his views were held in wide esteem. Once he printed this, it became an inviolable truth, even if it hadn’t been before that time; he was that influential. It’s not the only cause the so-called ‘Unstained Banner’ represented, but it’s certainly and undeniably one cause.
The intent of these untruths, though, is evident: it’s to conceal the valid complexities of the questions behind the Civil War. It would be comforting to think of war as between good and evil: on the one side are the bad guys, and we kill them; on the other side are the good guys, and they cheer for us.* Reality is never that simple. In this case, many in the South opposed slavery; many in the North were inveterate racists.
While the ‘Great Cause’ of the Confederacy was ineradicably and incurably stained by their championship of the institution of slavery, any honest treatment of history must also acknowledge that the Rebellion came about to combat Federal overreach, to oppose the imposition of tyranny, and above all to fight an armed invader bent on conquest. As for individual soldiers, most often they enlisted because their neighbors enlisted, fought because their friends fought. Few held to noble or lofty ideals; most combat soldiers can tell you what those are worth when you’re being shot at.
Which is why, after the war, flying the flags of the old Confederacy was considered treason — but the battle flags of the soldiers were treated with the honor due a fallen comrade, a brother in arms. Because that’s the fundamental principle the Union fought for: that the secessionists didn’t have the right to secede. That’s the cause that triumphed, which makes every Confederate soldier an American. While we must condemn slavery, the soldier’s deeds of honor and valor properly belong to us all.
And that, my friends, is also a truth that must be acknowledged.
*Note: This line is from Elizabeth Moon’s book, “The Deed of Paksenarrion”. I don’t know that she’d endorse the entirety of this article, but it’s a wonderful tale full of deeds of honor and valor, an epic struggle between good and evil. You should read it.