The Folklore Project


PeteCandler

Asheville, North Carolina

The Punishment Pass

By Pete Candler


Cyclists know all about it. They call it the “punishment pass.” A car passes you too closely on your left, gunning the motor as they come around you, forcing you off the shoulder. It’s done to make a point: You don’t belong on the road. It’s the driver’s equivalent of being buzzed by a fighter jet.

Last month, my overburdened Landcraft, laden with five bicycles, an overhead luggage carrier, and North Carolina plates, had not been on the narrow, two-lane road on l’Île d'Orléans, Québec, Canada,  for more than two kilometers before being passed this way. A bloated, silver Ford F-350 dually pickup truck roared past at close range, gunned it as it pulled aside me, and tore on up the road, snorting exhaust. I struggled, but managed to keep the hulking Chevrolet on the narrow road.

As if to make me feel like I was still in western North Carolina, he had a rebel flag on his bumper. 

I know there’s a strong nationalist strain in Québec, but the discovery that that goddamn flag has flyers up here in Canada came as a disappointment. In an instant, all the platitudes I had heard lately about Canada, its impossibly handsome leader and impossibly handsome traditions of enlightened tolerance, fell away — maybe unfairly — as cheap and easy propaganda. To see a pickup truck in western North Carolina with a rebel flag on it is no great novelty; to see it in Québec, totally out of context, was jarring. Evidently, the Confederate flag is a thing not only in Québec but also in places all over Canada, mostly among hopelessly clueless teenagers who feel a need to stand out. 

At the very least, it’s refreshing to know that the United States does not have a monopoly on dipshits.

A week later, I found that the same separatist spirit had spilled down into Vermont, too. 

So when I passed three more cars in Vermont flying the rebel flag from their bumpers, I was less than shocked. I felt pissed off at them. Maybe I expected more of Vermont, the celebrated land of Bernie Sanders and Ben & Jerry’s, but even in this charmingly old-fashioned, progressive, and provincial state, they seem late to the argument or to have missed it entirely. I’m sure most people in Vermont wouldn’t go near a Confederate flag even if you poured maple syrup over it, but I can’t help wondering what it is the ones who actually fly it see in the thing. I can forgive Canadians for being clueless about it all, as geographically and culturally distant as they are from the vicissitudes of Southern racial politics. But I noticed more rebel flags in Vermont than in any other place — including North Carolina and Virginia — over the course of our 4,000-mile road trip.

Something about this just doesn’t add up.

It could be that I’ve just become numb to the flag in the South, but I don’t think so. We’ve been having the rebel-flag argument in the South for decades, and while it seems to be settled in principle, some remain unconvinced by the unimpeachably just and rational argument that the Confederate battle flag is an icon not only of racial hatred but also of sentiments (I hesitate to call them “principles”) that would undermine the very conditions necessary for the survival of sane, democratic civil society. 

Throughout my childhood and until 2003, the Georgia state flag incorporated the Confederate battle flag, and as a boy, I just assumed it had always been that way, at least since the Civil War. I learned later in life that the Confederate battle flag was put there — like a legislative “punishment pass” — at a specific moment in history, to make a point to people: specifically, black people. It might feel quaint to some people to think of the rebel flag as representing “heritage,” but the stars and bars were made part of the Georgia state flag in 1956, one year after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and two years after Brown v. The Board of Education. The timing was no coincidence.

It was an act of clinical, political bullying intended to signify that, at worst, black people are not welcome here, and at best that they will be tolerated here only so long as they operate on white people’s terms. There is no getting around this history: The 1956 Georgia flag was an act of aggression primarily against blacks. It was also an act in service of the myth of white supremacy, a gesture designed to give symbolic weight to a duly elected regime and culture of racial discrimination. 

The battle flag came off the Georgia state flag in 2003, but the current flag retains traces of Confederate iconography. The rebel flag no longer flies over the State House in Charleston, South Carolina, and some people are still having a hard time giving it up. Shortly after the removal of the flag in Columbia, I noticed a proliferation of devices I had never seen before: flagpoles mounted on a trailer hitches, waving full-size Confederate flags. As Bob Dylan sings, “Funny, how the things you have the hardest time parting with are the things you need the least.”

In his short story, “The Appropriation of Cultures,” Percival Everett tells the story of Daniel, an African-American who, inexplicably to others, buys a pickup truck with a rebel flag decal in the back window, adopting it as a symbol of black power. Eventually, the symbol loses its power, by being taken over by the people it is meant to intimidate:

Black people all over the state flew the Confederate flag. The symbol began to disappear from the fronts of big rigs and the back windows of jacked-up four-wheelers. And after the emblem was used to dress the yards and mark picnic sites of black family reunions the following Fourth of July, the piece of cloth was quietly dismissed from its station with the U.S. and State flags atop the State Capitol. There was no ceremony, no notice. One day, it was not there.

Would that our culture’s imagination was as rich as Percival Everett’s. His story is, alas, fiction. But it’s one instance of a re-orientation of the imagination that literature can cause. It can enlarge your vision enough to enable you to see the humanity in someone who is different from you, and maybe even objectively unlikable. This is one reason fascists, and Nazis in particular, have a history of burning books. 

Last Saturday, neo-Nazi and white nationalist groups attempted a “punishment pass” around American culture by a show of force in Charlottesville. Hundreds of polo-shirted fascists with Hitler hairdos mobbed the great university town with flaming torches, brandishing an astonishing variety of fascist swag, the most prominent being the Rebel flag and its kissing cousin, the Nazi one. In theory, they were there to express their Constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech. In reality, they assembled to intimidate, to air grievances against a culture they believe has betrayed them. People who want to defend free speech do not do so with shields and pepper spray or borrow the optics of their demonstrations from Nuremberg rallies. All those tiki torches were not there to keep the mosquitoes away. As a gesture freighted with historical resonances, it was either deliberate or unimaginably ignorant.

Or at least it seemed like just a punishment pass, until an Ohio man deliberately rammed a grey Dodge Challenger into a crowd of people, killing Heather Heyer and injuring many others. The demonstration was no longer a gesture of intimidation, no longer a “punishment pass,” but an act of terrorism, a wantonly malicious act of murder.

I do not know what reasons would compel someone in Québec or Vermont to brandish a Confederate flag. Perhaps it is a particular way of being perceived as “scandalously cool” or “daring” or “edgy,” in the same way that some people feel themselves to be before they become subjects of Darwin Awards YouTube videos. To see Confederate battle flags — once part of the flag of my own home state — pole-to-pole with Nazi flags is be exposed to an essential truth about American history. These two go together, and the reasoning behind white nationalism and “white heritage” leads inexorably to the death camp. It is not new, and American culture has never been free of this pernicious myth. The idea of white heritage does not just lead to violence; it is an act of violence in thought, based on a fundamentally American tradition of lust for domination.

Whether they know it or not, the punishment passer in Québec and the flag wavers in Vermont are invoking a symbol whose associations cannot be dissociated from their use in Charleston and Charlottesville. It is too late for naivete about this: Public symbols have shared histories and meanings that cannot be wholly individualized by appealing to some pure, original meaning that is free of the taint of later usage. It is nonsense to claim sole proprietorship over public signs, and while the Confederate flag may have personal meaning to some, that personal significance is not innocent of the context in which the symbol has been employed explicitly to subject and oppress an entire race of people. 

If the defenders of the rebel flag can continue to claim with a straight face that it is a symbol of “white heritage” — even after Charleston and Charlottesville, to say nothing of the hundreds of other episodes — let them at least be honest about what that heritage includes: base cruelty and enslavement, lynching and lies, ghettos and gas chambers. 

Vermonters and Québécois and whoever else thinks the rebel flag is cool are welcome to the symbol. I would be grateful for a South that was forever done with it, which had grown up beyond the puerile fantasies of racial purity and reality TV-grade nostalgia. But they ought to know what they are getting: a symbol of heritage, yes — a heritage of dehumanization, enforced bondage, and malice towards many. A heritage both as un-American as secession and as American as chattel slavery. 

It has this in common with the white flag: It is a flag of surrender, and those who wave it or hang it on their garage wall or stick it to their bumper — as well as those who tolerate it with silence — publicize their own voluntary forfeiture of basic humanity and of the inviolable dignity that is the birthright of every person.