'Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel,' Samuel Johnson wrote. He might have added and 'the flag is his weapon.'
So how do we judge the Confederate Flag in relation to others?
Under the Cross of St George Anglo-Norman Crusaders waded in blood following the fall of Acre. They waded in blood at every opportunity
Under the same cross and the Royal pennant, English armies devastated France during the Hundred Years War. English armies fanned across the countryside, raping, pillaging and killing all those who had no monetary value. It was total war, depriving French armies of manpower and food. After Agincourt, Henry V ordered the massacre of French prisoners because he feared they might regroup and launch a counter attack. Many were burnt alive.
Righteous murder continued in different guises and all under a flag. In 1649 the massacre of Drogheda saw three hundred women and children burned alive in a church, Oliver Cromwell informed Parliament that: "That I am persuaded that this is a righteous judgment of God upon these barbarous wretches."
And after Ireland, the world. Shaken by the Boer revolt in South Africa, the British invented the concentration camp where 10% of the Boer population died in one year.
In Amritsar, 1919 British troops opened fire on a dense crowd of peaceful protestors and kept firing until they ran out of ammunition. In ten minutes they killed between 379 to 1000 protestors and injured many others. Though the officer in charge was censured, the British public labelled Reginald Dyer a hero and raised £26,000 for "The man who saved India."
The French and their flag are also associated with oppression and atrocity.Napoleon has many admirers but perhaps not in the Middle East and among Haitians. In 1800 Haiti, producing two thirds of the world's coffee and almost half of its sugar was one of the world's richest colonies. It belonged to France and was dependent on slave labour. Black slaves were lashed, and beaten to work and forced to wear tin muzzle to stop them eating the sugar cane. There were instances of rebellious slaves roasted over slow fires or filled with gunpowder and blown to pieces. And when they eventually rebelled under the brilliant and charismatic Toussaint L'Ouverture, Napoleon savagely crushed them and restored slavery.
The list goes on. Choose a flag. Where do we start?
Mao's great leap forward caused 45 million deaths in four years
Leopold II of Belgium was responsible for 8 million deaths in the Belgian Congo
between 1886 - 1908
And then we come to the big boys, and surprisingly Hitler comes out quite modest in comparison with Soviet Russia and Mao's China. Admittedly Stalin killed only 7million people between 1932 - 39, but Russian Governments between 1917 to 1987 murdered nearly 62 million in all.
Hitler murdered a mere 20 million.In this respect Mao wins the cigar
Though not on the same scale as Mao successive American governents did a pretty good job in depriving Native Americans of their land. That was done under the stars and stripes not the flag of the Confederacy, and so, too, were the massacres. Even today, rightly or wrongly, there are many places in the world with much the same feelings towards the American flag as Liberals have for the Confederate flag.
Historians quibble over figures and context so that it's matter of ideology and choice when it comes to disentangling 'heritage' from crimes committed under any particular flag. We forget some things and remember others. Every nation has its massacres - as well as its heroes. Scoundrels exploited flags and the naïve followed their spell, whether the so called 'White Trash' that fought for the Confederacy, or the 'Scum of the Earth that fought with Wellington at Waterloo.
And over time flags lose their potency. The Union Jack that once flew over large parts of this planet is now largely tourist kitsch and this, I feel, was the way the flag of the Confederacy was heading, whether in terms of Southern Rock albums or TV programmes like The Dukes of Hazard. Its more negative connotations being lost in the anodyne wash of commercialism.
Now however, and perhaps unwittingly, the flag has become potent again. In the early 1960's it achieved brief potency because of how racists used it to justify segregation. It was a dark rebellion. It has become potent again but for the opposite reasons. Driven from the mainstream it will achieve a dark glamour it hasn't seen for years and become a focal point for the aggrieved. There are parallels in Britain, where the Flag of St George was very nearly appropriated by by the far right. Might that have been commercially banned too?
Finally, and with every respect, I'd argue that the whole Confederate flag controversy is pretty convenient 'Displacement Activity.' It has proved an easier target in terms of 'doing something' than the powerful and organised gun lobby. It's an easier target than the big drug companies. The number of lone wolf killers who have been on various medications, legal or illegal should be provoking more thought than focusing on a flag.