Why do Patriotic Americans like the Confederate Flag?

or, in-group cohesion and the Stars and Bars

Oh, look, fieldwork.

In my further attempts to understand different segments of American society, I’ve been trying to listen to what folks in the army are talking about.

Observation one: They like boobs.

Observation two: a higher than average (at least, compared to the people I normally encounter) percentage of them like or do not hate the Confederate flag.

To the lay observer, this seems like a contradiction. After all, isn’t the Confederate flag symbolic of a traitorous, break-away nation that opened fire on the US military installment at Fort Sumter? Wouldn’t everyone in the US army, under such circumstances, be compelled to open fire on those rebels?

Something more than superficial logic must be going on.


Possibility one: Freedom of Speech.

Maybe people who sign up to defend American values at home and abroad are just really strong supporters of Freedom of Speech.

While certainly some army folks do cite this line of reasoning, they seem no more inclined to it than anyone else. The general sentiment towards flag-burning, another case of protected but offensive speech, appears much less positive. They might vaguely tolerate flag burning, if they have to, but virtually none of them would actually burn the US flag. By contrast, some of them (sorry I have no hard stats,) actively *like* the Confederate flag.

Possibility two:

Out-migration of liberals leaves a remnant population in which conservatives come to represent what “America” “stands for,” and this remnant, increasingly conservative population uses the Confederate flag to symbolize its conservativeness.

Eh… Certainly there is a physical overlap between the part of the country that produces most army grunts, hard-core patriots, and people who like the Confederate flag, and people may not actually think through their cultural symbols but just kinda like stuff they grew up with.

This line of thought feels inelegant.

Possibility 3: Signaling In-Group Preference.

If there’s anything that differentiates conservatives from liberals, preferring one’s in-group over the out-group ranks pretty high. Liberals are so fond of the out-group, they’ve literally taken to calling themselves “allies.”

If there’s anything that probably inspires people to join the army, it’s preference for one’s in-group (country, state, city, etc.,) over folks in one’s out-group. After all, the entire purpose of the army is to defend one’s in-group by killing or threatening to kill one’s out-group. This is about as literal as it gets.

Obviously the Confederate flag only has any kind of significance to people from the American South–I wouldn’t expect in-group oriented folks from Saudi Arabia to start flying it, for example. Symbols probably can’t be totally random. But we already know that the US army draws more from the US South than from Saudi Arabia.

A lot of people claim that the Confederate flag symbolizes racism. That’s probably true, but almost no one thinks of themselves as “racist.” No one thinks of themselves as “dumb,” either, even though 50% of people are, by definition, below average. Most mentally healthy people resist applying insults to themselves, and “racist” is an insult.

As such, I think it more functional to claim that the Stars and Bars represents in-group preference/cohesion to those who fly it, and “fuck you” to those not in the group. As people may have multiple layers of group identity, I suspect people in the army may simultaneously identify with the US, their specific sub-region of the US (the South), their state, home city, local sports teams, their friends/family/religious group, the army, etc.

Many people claim the Confederate flag has less to do with anti-black sentiment as with anti-Yankee sentiment. To be frank, it’s not like an army of black people ever invaded the South and burned a large swath of it to the sea.

I wouldn’t really know, because I’ve never hung out with Confederate flag fans long enough to do a comparative study of how they react to different groups of outsiders.

Regardless, the flag’s offensive reputation may not matter so much as the fact that it has an offensive reputation: your in-group signalling may be more effective if it imposes some cost on signalers. This makes it harder for non-group members to trick you into extending the benefits of group membership. For example, you can’t just call yourself a Jew and get a free ticket to Israel; you have to do things like keep kosher, which is an enormous pain in the ass for people who aren’t used to it. There are legal ramifications to having one’s conversion declared invalid due to inadequate adherence to kosher laws and other Orthodox Jewish legal standards. This may come across as anal-retentive, but in the long-run, it keeps the privileges of in-group membership for people who are actually devoted to the in-group.

Likewise, the offensiveness of the Confederate flag keeps the benefits of southern in-group membership for those willing to deal with the social stigma attached to flag, or at least willing to say “fuck you” to everyone outside their social group.