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August 15, 2009


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It seems like soccer has been the Next New Thing in America for at least a generation yet never has become a major sport. Children play it, of course, but they also tend to move on to other sports when their coordination increases. It's also big among immigrants, but it remains to be seen whether the typical immigrant will stay interested in the sport as he becomes more accustomed to American culture and better in English, or whether he'll drop it in favor of the NFL and NASCAR.

One bit of hope is that several MLS teams are drawing fairly well, especially those with new, purpose-built stadiums. I don't know whether immigrants account for the major share of game attendance or even if there are any official statistics of that sort being kept. What is pretty much beyond question, however, is that soccer is not yet a watercooler sport - people don't stand around the watercooler at work and talk about last night's terrific game.

An odd question: Are people in Mexico familiar with the Confederate flag and what it represents? I ask because I'm currently dating somebody from Hamburg with a confederate flag in his closet, who claimed until I gave him some information on the flag's, err, historical use that it's more than just silly regionalism.

I'm fairly certain that the Confederate flag means nothing to most Mexicans. In the late '90s some European designer started to use it as a fashion symbol, and it briefly (and very annoyingly) proliferated among upper-middle-class 20-somethings.

There was also a motorcycle gang that used to rev their bikes in the Condesa, before the neighborhood had fully completed its slow transition into yuppiedom. At least one of them had it emblazoned on his jacket. When I asked him, he said it was a symbol of "freedom."

I sucked that one up.

I can't judge what a German "should" know about American symbolism. Even if he knew it was the Southern banner in the war, it's not unreasonable for him to think of it as nothing more than a regional flag with no ideological freight. (There is a great song by Jason Ringenberg, "A Rebel Flag In Germany," if you like country music.) So I wouldn't read anything into the fact that he's got a Confederate flag in his closet.

That said, if he doesn't burn the banner once you explained its origin and post-1954 history, then you should probably dump him forthwith.


I see your point, but how is it any different than somebody who wears a Che shirt? Surely you wouldn't say that everybody who wears one supports what he did? Or, dare I say, a gentleman wearing a red star?


It is fair to say that the red star represents things other than the Chinese Communist Party, like (say) the Labor Party of Brazil or the SPD or the EZLN or the Republican armies in which my grandfather fought or Heineken beer. The Confederate flag represents little more than a rebellion intended to preserve slavery. Perhaps it is becoming a symbol of "Southern culture," but why then do no Southerners of a certain skin tone accept it as such?

That said, I do understand the point, and it's a good one. The motivation behind your German boyfriend's Confederate flag is not unlike the motivation behind my red star T-shirt. Open road individualist liberalism on the one hand, mushy social solidarity on the other.

Yet there is a second more relevant difference. If a significant number of Chinese citizens indicated that they were angry about the red star and considered it beyond the pale, then I wouldn't wear it. Should in the future a significant number of Chinese citizens show that they have become upset about the red star, then I will cease to wear it. Their anger over the specific ideology it will have come to symbolize will swamp whatever soft attachment I may retain to its other meanings.

And that's the difference. The Confederate flag angers Americans today. Even if that anger comes from history --- with 1962 more relevant than 1861 --- the anger is real, the ideology that produced that anger is real, and the intent of those Americans who fly it is clear.

Otherwise, as I said, you'd see most Southerners saying that it represents their heritage, and not merely a subset of those who believe that their ancestors were never enslaved.

So of course no foreigner who displays a Confederate flag should be judged. But it would be odd for them to continue to display it once they understand what it currently means in the United States.


"It is fair to say that the red star represents things other than the Chinese Communist Party, like (say) the Labor Party of Brazil or the SPD or the EZLN or the Republican armies in which my grandfather fought or Heineken beer. The Confederate flag represents little more than a rebellion intended to preserve slavery."

I think this is, while true, a bit misleading. I don't think people wear the flag to express their support for Schumacher. And while there might not be many Chinese who are offended by the Red Star, I'm sure I can find plenty of Tibetans and Uighurs who are. After all, their countries are now gone forever, forced to salute the flag of an alien occupier while parts of their culture are censored and oppressed by the government. How many people are enough?

Moreover, this argument from politeness seems fundamentally weak. So x million people who either died or had their lives ruined under the PRC don't matter, because people don't find it offensive?

Now, you point out, and I agree, that you have other meanings for the Red Star. But I think it's a mistake to assume, and actually a bit offensive, to say that all Southerners who fly the Confederate flag do so out of support for racism. Are you really gonna say its use in the Dukes of Hazzard was a symbol of white power? I admit there is a lot of whitewashing going on, and people have blinded themselves to the evil that was the Confederacy. But I think it's pretty clear that lots of people do fly it out of a regional pride. And it's not clear to me why that is necessarily wrong. I would say nowadays it's more a symbol of anti-Yankeeism than racism.

Now it's possible that because you're an American, the Confederate flag promotes more visceral emotions to you than the Red Star does. Which is understandable, but if so, why should a German care about what some Americans think?

In any case, I can't imagine getting in a fight over it when there are far more serious issues.

People may have displayed the Confederate flag as a sign of Southern pride and heritage some years ago, For example, on The Dukes of Hazzard, which first went on television 30 years ago. As it's become much more controversial in recent years, I would strongly imagine that the only people who still display it are those trying to make a point that goes beyond mere pride in heritage.

Noel pondered:

"I can't judge what a German "should" know about American symbolism. Even if he knew it was the Southern banner in the war, it's not unreasonable for him to think of it as nothing more than a regional flag with no ideological freight."

Noel, for most people on this side of the Atlantic, the Confederate banner usually represents nothing more than the fact that they, you know, are fans of Southern Rock.

Scott mused:

"Which is understandable, but if so, why should a German care about what some Americans think?"

Frankly, you could ask that question the other way around. Why should our random German person even have some kind of an affiliation with the Confederate flag in the first place? Or with the Union flag, for that matter? Personally, I consider people who have an attachment to foreign symbols, even as a memorabilia, to be somewhat weird.

But if he does have such an attachment, well, then, shouldn't he also be aware of the background of the symbolism?

Other than that, I agree that there's no reason why the Confederate banner could not be reclaimed and redeemed as an ordinary regional symbol. For comparison, the color composition of the current Finnish flag is explained by the White victory in the Civil War of 1918. Needless to say, during the inter-war era, the flag was considered among the working-class and socialist circles as a "class flag", and it was quite common for people with left-wing affiliations to boycott the flag. After the experiences of 1939-1940 and the wartime solidarity, the flag was finally accepted and rediscovered as a patriotic symbol for the entire nation. This new sense of unity was reinforced by the "purity" of the flag's color composition.

Besides, in the end, it's all a matter of random chance, and the interpretations depend on who's in the receiving end. The Confederate banner may be regarded as a symbol of slavery and rebellion; but on the other hand, the Union flag could just as well be regarded by some people as a symbol of imperialism and genocide.

Personally, I'm not bothered by any symbol per se, but instead by the manner that they're used. You may wish to consider the fact that for most of you people on this forum, the Victory in Europe Day is a grand holiday, yet there are people in East Europe for whom it signifies a memorial day of another occupation régime, and who still experience the propagandistic use of the date in question.


J. J.


Awsome review, great pics; and, like I said then, for the personal diary of my life it goes in the DAY TO REMEMBER section.

I had not had the oportunity to come check out the blog, and now that I have I can say this is a keeper... BLOGG ON!!!


Thanks, Carlos. Next time, Oakland!

Unless the two teams meet again in 2010 in South Africa ... I will fly to Mexico just to see it on a big screen television with you guys.


Will get bach atcha on the infrastructure ASAP...

Okay, here's a question.

Is a confederate uniform an appropriate Halloween costume?

Yes. Why shouldn't it be?


J. J.

For a cause that was entirely about states rights and, umm, tariffs, a surprising number of people are offended by the country and anything associated it. A bit like wearing an Afrika Korps costume to a party.


Che and everything that he stood for disgusts me to the core, precisely because of his loathsome ideology and what it represents to me on both personal and political levels. I'm still not sure I see the difference.

I’ve been thinking about this. It’s a good question. And I think it has a clear answer.

Let’s rephrase the question. You’re asking why the general American emotional reaction to pictures of Che Guevara (or red stars) is different from the general American emotional reaction to the Confederate flag. One seems silly, the other seems wrong. After all, even among Cuban-Americans under age 40, very few would get worked up about a Red Star T-shirt. (As Bernard knows, I speak from experience.)

But why the difference? It doesn’t stem from some sort of absolute calculus about relative evil. So let’s try to think it through. We’ll start with how the Confederate flag acquired its negative connotation.

The reasons are threefold. First, racists used it as a racist symbol from at least 1956 onwards. (See Georgia, flag of.)

Second, it was created to represent a nation founded for the purpose of preserving holding Africans in chattel slavery. That nation died after only four years of war, and never thus acquired a national existence separate from its founding ideology.

Third, at a deep emotional level, Americans increasingly came to accept African-Americans as an integral part of the national fabric rather than a strange “other” appended onto it. Add those three things together, and you can explain why something that was a bit of a joke on a silly television show in 1977 would become quite offensive to most non-southern Americans by 2009. Those who currently display it are stating either that they are racists or that they do not care if others consider them racists. (That was Peter’s point above.)

Do the symbols of Cuban communism have a similar history? It would appear not. First and foremost, as Jussi pointed out, they are foreign symbols. Having just been yesterday in a bar serving Hammer & Sickle vodka, the swastika may be the only foreign symbol to have acquired a viscerally-negative connotation in the United States, and it isn’t hard to understand why it would be an exception.

Second, Che Guevara has (for whatever bad reasons) a romantic image. Moreover, communism itself remains attractive to many as an economic ideal; even if they believe both that full-blown central planning is disastrous and have no desire to be ruled by a single dictatorial party. Combine those two, and you have an image associated with the young idealist of The Motorcycle Diaries or the generic struggles against the Somozas and Pinochets of the hemisphere, and not the sordid reality of the impoverished Cuban police state.

Finally, the Cuban communist government still exists. And its propaganda is effective. One reason why it is effective, of course, is explained in the previous paragraph. Another reason is that it replaced an almost-as-brutal (if often ineffective) police state. In addition, many of its achievements in education and health were real, if much less than could have been achieved had the Cuban Revolution been led by José Figueres instead of Fidel Castro. All that serves to muddle the semiotic waters, much as the survival of the CSA under its second or third national flags would have muddled the waters over its banner.

None of this has anything to do with justice or relative evil, of course. It’s just an explanation for an emotional difference.

So in essence, to you this is less about what the flag represents, or the perceived motives of the people wearing it, and more about what you think society's view of it is.

It's also not clear to me that people find it quite as offensive as you do, as witnessed by its wide proliferation throughout the south. But YMMV.

Scott, your post is, well, silly. Honestly. I'm surprised.

Your first statement is meaningless. I am dead serious about that. Obviously, the Confederate flag, like all symbols, has meaning because society gives it meaning. The Confederate flag represents racism because it was created to represent a racist rebellion in 1862, and repopularized as a symbol of racist resistance to the federal government in 1956. I am at a loss as to why I have to repeat that. Of course, not all people who are attached to the Confederate flag are racists. But that does not change the social fact.

Your second statement is annoying. First, I said "non-southern." It is not possible to be clearer than that. Second, even if I hadn't, the Confederate flag is quite contentious in the South. After all, a little more than 18 percent of the South is African-American. In addition, there are a lot of racists in the South who have adopted the symbol. There are also a bunch of idiots who have both convinced themselves that the Civil War was about something other than slavery and do not care what black people think. In short, your mileage does not get to vary about whether the Confederate flag is controversial to all and offensive to many.

Honestly, a discussion of the controversy over the Confederate flag is a really bad place to use the phrase YMMV. You sound like you're denying that there is a controversy.

I do not believe that you are ignorant of American reality. Nor do I believe that you are ignorant of the Southern reality. Nor do I believe that you do not understand the nature of social facts. Unfortunately, that leaves me at an utter loss as to what in God's name you're trying to communicate.

"Your first statement is meaningless. I am dead serious about that. Obviously, the Confederate flag, like all symbols, has meaning because society gives it meaning."

I don't see it as a meaningless statement. To be honest, I am incredibly surprised you went into a long discussion of why it's appropriate to wear a shirt with a man who killed plenty of people in living memory.

To bring up a situation from my life... a professor, and good friend of mine, teaches a class on 20th century China at the place I went for undergrad. Somebody showed up for class on the first day with a Mao shirt.

She didn't mention it for a while, but she had gotten the fun of going through the Cultural Revolution and being umm, chastized by the government. But he's an exotic, romantic figure! And so the shirt was appropriate, no?

Moreover, I freely acknowledge that the flag has a terrible past. But symbols and words change. Try calling somebody a queer in the 1950s, for instance. The more I think about it, the more it is not clear to me that people in 2009 are flying it out of racism. Rather, it seems a sign of regionalism. A region I dislike intensely, I admit, but that's not quite the same thing.

Flying it and whitewashing its evil, evil past? Sure. But you're going to have to persuade me why that's really any different than the Che shirt. Perhaps you'd be cool with it if it was a Chinese fad to use it?

Scott, since you mentioned it, wearing an Afrika Korps costume to a fancy dress party is perfectly OK at least in my book.

It's even better if you've dressed up as a specific person, like von Thoma or Rommel himself. And yet another way to make it better is if you have a friend who's dressed up as Auchinleck or Montgomery.

But in my opinion, even dressing up as an ordinary DAK grunt would be all right.

Of course, if the image matters to some people, dress up as von Stauffenberg. Or, for that matter, Artur Nebe, which would be a valid excuse to wear the SD uniform.


J. J.

Scott, you're very young. You're looking for a universal moral principle. There isn't one.

But there are social facts. My comment listed the ones that explain why Che Guevara doesn't elicit the same reaction as the Confederate flag. You can deny them as much as you like; it's beginning to strike me as very strange.

No, it's more than very strange. It's downright bizarre. Scott, you're implicitly stating that the Confederate flag includes black people! What?? I've spent a lot of time in the South and I know a lot of black southerners who like their region ... but they don't identify with that banner. Ditto liberal southerners. That does not happen with normal symbols of regional pride, like the Texan flag or the Bunker Hill banner.

Anyway, there is, as I think you referenced, a Chinese fad to display Mao in fancy restaurants and hip nightclubs. I've seen it in Hong Kong. That said, I don't see the relevance. After all, the people putting up Mao kitsch are not Maoists. The fact is that the current semiotics of the symbols of Chinese communism in China don't translate to the current semiotics of the Confederate flag in the United States.

I'm still not sure that I understand what you're trying to argue, let alone why you're doing so with such fervor. The best I can figure is that you want to live in a world in which semiotic meanings are set by abstract and universal principles of justice. Sadly, we do not live in that world.

By the way, Scott, I have worn and know people who have worn Pancho Villa shirts. He was a bastard, probably worse than old Che. But he had style.

Were you really surprised when I said that Americans don't really get worked up over people wearing Che Guevara T-shirts? C'mon. I've seen them being sold in South Miami, for Chrissakes, in a shopping center right down the road from the Dadeland Mall.

And Scott, an explanation is not a defense. "None of this has anything to do with justice or relative evil, of course. It’s just an explanation for an emotional difference."

What a thread for a post about a soccer game! But I'm not complaining.

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