On the evening of 17th June this year, a group of Christians met at their local church for a bible study group. The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, has become well known across the world, not from being the oldest church of its denomination in the southern United States, but for an appalling act of terrorism that took place that June evening. 21 year-old Dylann Roof, a white supremacist and a racist, sat in on the meeting of worship for an hour before opening fire indiscriminately. His attack resulted in nine deaths. The reaction to this vicious crime across the world has been of solidarity. Roof aimed to trigger a race war but was met by the congregation of the church with forgiveness and love. International solidarity has triggered a renewed debate about gun legislation in the United States, with President Barack Obama saying: "At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries."
Yet the debate in the United States, and around the world, is not merely about gun control. It is also about the control of flags. The use of the flag of the Confederate States of America in particular has come into question. Lawmakers in Mississippi have planned to remove the portion of the state flag that contains the somewhat infamous blue cross on a red field, whilst Hilary Clinton has called it a "symbol of our country's racist past."
It is commonly thought that the CSA flag is a symbol of slavery. This is an accurate view, but one that fails to recognise the folly of anachronism. To apply the values and the ethics of our time to another is meaningless. Slavery was and is wrong, but for many people across the world during the 19th century it was perfectly acceptable. In the run-up to the US Civil War, the Industrial Revolution changed society and economics throughout the north. However, the south still relied heavily on a rural agricultural base, that wasn't profitable without cheap labour. Many citizens in modern-day Scotland see legislation from Westminster as injust, due to the existence of an out-of-touch 'elite'. So too did the people of the US south feel that Washington was ignoring their demands. (For clarity, I am not suggesting ideological similarities between Scotland and the CSA, I am merely using a modern example of political dissatisfaction to aid the description).
When the war erupted, many southerners viewed the Civil War akin to the US Revolution. They were fighting for what they perceived to be their freedom and their way of life. The culture and social cohesion of the Confederacy was about much more than just defending slavery. Indeed, in some ways, it can be argued that the flags of the Confederacy symbolise the ideals of the Revolution far more than they symbolise the evils of slavery. Every nation has uncomfortable and terrible moments in its history; the British Empire made use of concentration camps during the Boer War; the Belgian Empire pillaged what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo; the Soviet Union abused human rights on a scale comparable to that of Nazi Germany. Yet, the British and Belgian flags fly proudly today.
Understanding history requires us to understand contemporary circumstances as well as abstract facts. The US Civil War weaves far too rich a tapestry to be passed off as simply a battle over slavery. To ban a flag on a lack of understanding is foolish. Hilary Clinton's statement is simply politics aimed at increasing her profile in the more liberal north.
One cannot wipe the past away and ignore the things we find uncomfortable by banning flags. To do so would merely cause more underlying resentment and frustration – fueling the anger of people like Dylann Roof. We confuse the cultural traditions of the US South with the terrible periods of slavery, segregation and the KKK, but to do so demonstrates a fundamental ignorance. So, rather than banning the Confederate flag, let's reclaim it from the far-right and use it as part of the rich, diverse history of the American South that is so often misunderstood.