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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Monthly Archives: November 2021

I used to wear a Confederate flag on the back of a concert t-shirt when I was in high school. Lynyrd Skynyrd was on the front. I never saw them in concert; the lead singer died a couple of years before I started listening. I owned (almost) every album though. I was big into Molly Hatchet too—though, to be honest, I never really got over the change in lead singers on their third album. ZZ Top was up there too, and not their mid-80s synthesizers, just the 70s albums. I also knew “Whipping Post” and the Molly Hatchet cover of “Dreams,” but I’m afraid I just wasn’t cool enough for the Allman Brothers in my teens.

So that Confederate flag on my back meant one and only one thing to me: Southern Rock. As implausible as it sounds, it never occurred to me that it might mean something else.

I grew up in Pittsburgh, a no man’s land of overlapping northern, southern, and mid-western culture. My classic rock station kept Charlie Daniels’ “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” on heavy rotation, while most stations above the Mason-Dixon wouldn’t touch it. My suburb had maybe a 10% Black population, but illegal yet never-challenged redlining policies by local real estate agents kept those families sequestered in one corner of the town map. When a Black family did move in down my street in our otherwise all-white neighborhood, someone threw a burning cross in their yard. I’m not sure how long after that they moved out.

My parents helped desegregate the local police force by taking them to court and winning. That’s why our house kept getting egged and someone wrote “NIGER LOVERS” on the side of the garage. Racists can’t spell, my mother joked.

I wasn’t the brightest student either. I must have had some vague knowledge of the Civil War, but it was no more present in my mind than any other ancient history-book event I skimmed for a quiz and instantly forgot. This was decades before the KKK left Confederate flag flyers on my Lexington lawn or I saw that flag waved in unison with Nazi swastikas in Charlottesville. A part of me would like to go back to my high school ignorance. The world doesn’t seem half as ugly when you’re not required to pay attention.

I can’t erase my adolescent love for southern rock, but to preserve it, and anything else good about the South, requires disconnecting it from the symbols used by slave owners, Reconstruction-era vigilantes, Jim Crow-era bigots, Civil Rights-era segregationists, and modern-day neo-Nazis.

I think I get why that outrages some folks born here. If you grew up understanding a symbol to mean one thing and one thing only, family pride, who has the right to say you’re wrong? My continuing nostalgia for southern rock is nothing compared to a family identity passed down through generations.

I deeply respect that love of family. It’s why I reject the Confederate flag.

Slavery was the greatest anti-family force in the history of our country. Couples, parents, children, siblings, they were legally torn apart for the financial convenience of owners. I can’t imagine never seeing my children or wife again. I can’t imagine persevering through forced labor, forced poverty, and the constant threat of physical violence against myself and my loved ones. I can’t imagine my wife and daughter being legally raped and their offspring sold. Slavery is beyond anything I can imagine.

Although the Confederate flag means different things to different people, it obviously means slavery to many people, and I can’t stomach that association. But that’s easy for me. I didn’t grow up cherishing it. The greater feat of compassion would be to understand the flag as a personal symbol of pride and to still let go of it out of love for others who aren’t part of your own family.

All lives matter, but the Confederacy waged a war under the belief that Black lives don’t. Virginia has been around over four hundred years, but it was a part of the Confederacy only four. Southern pride can’t be identified with symbols linked to slavery and the century of violent bigotry that followed it.

Loving the South means letting go of the Confederacy.

First, let’s correct a common but false impression: The First Amendment’s protection of free speech does not apply to students wearing Confederate flags.

There are many legal precedents; here are four:

In 1972, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a Tennessee high school’s suspending a student for wearing a jacket that featured a Confederate flag was “a legitimate exercise of the school officials’ inherent authority to curtail disruption of the educational process.”

In 2008, the Sixth Circuit Court again upheld another decision from another Tennessee high school that banned Confederate flags for the same reason. Black students made up roughly 3% of the school, nearly identical to the Black population of Rockbridge County.

In 2009, the Eighth Circuit Court upheld a Missouri high school’s decision to suspend a student for violating the dress code prohibiting Confederate flags.

In 2013, the Fourth Circuit Court upheld a ruling that a South Carolina middle school was allowed to prohibit a student from wearing a “Southern Chicks” t-shirt that featured Confederate flags because “the school officials could reasonably forecast that [it] would materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school.”

In each case when the ruling was appealed to the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court rejected to hear it, establishing the lower court’s ruling as the final outcome and the legal precedent for future cases.

Here in Virginia, Montgomery County has prohibited the Confederate flags since 2002, because students cannot wear material that is “racially divisive,” listing the Confederate flag as an example. More than twenty high school students were suspended in 2015 for the violation.

In 2020, the Franklin County school board voted 6-0 to ban Confederate flags. A board member explained that the policy change was necessary because “it became apparent that students were offended by the Confederate symbol and found it disruptive.”

Bedford County Schools banned Confederate flags last year too. Its high school dress code reads: “Attire that has language or images that are offensive, profane, vulgar, discriminatory, or racially/culturally divisive. This would include Confederate flags, swastikas, KKK references, or any other images that might reasonably be considered hurtful or intimidating to others.”

Schools routinely ban Confederate flags and the courts routinely uphold those bans because the Confederate flag is overtly linked to slavery, the most extraordinarily racist institution in our nation’s history.

Mississippi’s statements of succession declared: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.”

The Confederate Constitution is identical to the U.S. Constitution, except for one repeated phrase: “Negro slavery.”

Its vice-president declared that the Confederacy “rests upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.”

The Confederacy kept four million Americans enslaved and, had they won the war, would have kept their uncalculatable offspring enslaved too. White supremacists know that historical fact and have repeatedly brandished the Confederate flag as a symbol of racial hatred in defiance of American values.

In 1951, Georgia politician Roy Harris declared that the Confederate flag “is becoming … the symbol of the white race and the cause of the white people.”

In 1956, white supremacists waved Confederate flags while throwing rocks at the first black student to attend the University of Alabama. They waved them in Little Rock, New Orleans, Austin, and Birmingham too.

In 1963, Alabama Governor George Wallace waved the Confederate flag in opposition to integration, promising to fight for “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

South Carolina began flying the Confederate flag from its capital in opposition to Civil Rights too. It was only removed in 2015 after a white supremacist murdered nine Black church members at a Bible study meeting in Charleston.

White supremacists waved the Confederate flag next to the Nazi flag at Charlottesville in 2017. The two flags are known internationally as symbols of racial hatred. The Anti-Defamation League classifies the Confederate flag “as a potent symbol of slavery and white supremacy, which has caused it to be very popular among white supremacists in the 20th and 21st centuries. This popularity extends to white supremacists beyond the borders of the United States.”

When a Confederate flag was displayed in a Canadian cemetery last March, the Calgary police hate crimes unit investigated, and the city council declared: the Confederate flag “is hateful, and it is not welcome in our community.”

And right here in Rockbridge, the KKK has left leaflets decorated with Confederate flags on the lawns of local residents.

Though many identify the Confederate flag as a symbol of family and regional pride, that identification does not outweigh the flag’s larger and internationally recognized meaning as a symbol of racial hatred inextricably linked to its white supremacist history. The South and the Confederacy are not the same. Virginia has existed for over 400 years, and it was a member of the Confederacy for only four of those years. Pride in Southern heritage cannot be linked to an institution that legalized forced labor, torture, murder, rape, human breeding, and the permanent division of families.

My congressional district was a top headline in the New York Times the Sunday after the Virginia governor election: “Democrats Thought They Bottomed Out in Rural, White America. It Wasn’t the Bottom.” Reporters Astead W. Herndon and Shane Goldmacher travelled to Bath county (which along with Rockbridge and about a dozen other neighboring counties is Virginia’s Sixth congressional district) and interviewed “a dozen white, rural voters who backed Mr. Youngkin” to understand what drove the red wave. Their responses reveal a lot about not just my state but the state of the political divide widening across the U.S.

First up, look at Charles Hamilton. He’s a Vietnam vet who said “his vote for Mr. Youngkin was really a proxy vote for Mr. Trump,” because “the best thing that can happen is to get [Biden] and that woman out of there.”

I’m not sure who “that woman” is (Jill Biden maybe, or did he mean House Speaker Nancy Pelosi?), but his point is clear: the Virginia governor election wasn’t about the Virginia governor election; it was about Trump and Biden. Youngkin and McAuliffe didn’t matter. Though it would be nice if non-presidential elections weren’t always referendums on the White House, Hamilton’s political reflex is probably the norm for both Republicans and Democrats. The takeaway is clear too: Biden’s approval rating determines other election outcomes. That’s been pretty much the driving logic behind every election I’ve witnessed in my political lifetime, so I’d call that business as usual.

Now look at the second Bath voter. Karen Williams says she’s angry at Virginia’s current Democratic governor because he supports “critical race theory” which she says is responsible for removing Confederate statues and for “treating [white children] like little monsters.”

I don’t want to leap down the CRT rabbit hole, so I’ll just say that teaching white kids that they’re little monsters is definitely not critical race theory. Neither is removing Confederate statues—though at least in that case there’s some connecting thread to reality since Confederate statues often reflect systemic racism and CRT was developed in 1980s legal studies as a way to combat systemic racism. But I suspect Williams doesn’t know that. I’m guessing she heard conservative media pundits repeating claims that progressives had infiltrated public education to promote the belief that white people are born evil. Not only is that idea not CRT, it’s not even an actual belief since no progressive educational policies promote anything like it. So the takeaway: voters such as Williams think Democrats are indoctrinating children with offensive ideas that Democrats don’t actually believe let alone promote. The rebranding of CRT has provided Republicans a fictional but powerful target to channel their anger about Black Lives Matter.

The fictional leap of CRT is nothing compared to Bath voter number three. Elaine Neff displays “images of Mr. Trump as Rambo and the Terminator” in her hardware store, and she attended Trump’s January 6th rally—though she didn’t tell the Times reporters whether she participated in the riot.

So now we have a voter who believes the unsupported and repeatedly debunked claim that the 2020 presidential election was somehow rigged and that Trump was somehow the actual winner. Last month, the Public Religion Research Institute found that two-thirds of Republicans hold this belief. Last May, a PRRI-IFYC survey also found that 28% of Republicans believe “true American patriots may have to resort to violence” to save the country. The new survey puts the number at 30%.

This is Neff’s crowd. She is beyond Hamilton’s merely partisan approach to voting or even Williams’ warped but based-on-a-true-story CRT distortions. Neff celebrates Trump as an iconic action hero embodied by actors Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger (who, ironically, don’t support Trump). But it gets worse. Neff also believes the FDA-approved coronavirus vaccine is a “poison.” Worse yet: She is “worried that Democrats were planning extermination camps of Mr. Trump’s supporters.”

Wait. What?!

If it sounds like the New York Times concocted a parody article to ridicule Republican voters, consider that the survey mentioned above also found that a sixth of Americans (meaning a third of Republicans) believe the currently Democratic-dominated federal government is controlled by Satan-worshipping, sex-trafficking pedophiles.

How is it possible for anyone, literally anyone, to believe any of these extremist fabrications?

That brings us to Bath voter number four. John Wright said he listens exclusively to “pro-Trump programming” because: “If the media said it, I won’t believe it.”

Wright is far from alone. Though two-thirds of Republicans think Biden somehow rigged the election, the number rises to 82% for those who watch Fox News, and 97% for One America News Network and Newsmax. While 30% of Republicans are okay with violence in the service of conservatives retaking America, the number rises to 40% for those watching Wright’s “pro-Trump programming.” As the Times reports: Bath “voters, fueled by a conservative media bubble that speaks in apocalyptic terms, were convinced that America had been brought to the brink.” Bottom line: many rural Republicans in Virginia believe whatever they want to believe and insulate themselves from hearing anything that might challenge those beliefs.

The reporters spin that by quoting the Democratic former governor of Montana, Steven Bullock, and retiring Illinois Representative Cheri Bustos. Bullock says, “We’ve got a branding problem,” and Bustos says, “Folks don’t feel like we’re offering them anything, or hearing or listening to them.”

Both of those statements are true, but neither comes close to touching the bottom of the Republican deep end. The problem in Bath wasn’t “branding” or not “listening.” Bath voters are evidence that conservative national media stokes and insulates Republican outrage by branding Democrats with insanely offensive lies: Democrats overthrew the last presidential election? Democrats are distributing poisonous vaccines? Democrats think white children are monsters? Democrats are pedophiles? Democrats are Satanists? Democrats are planning extermination camps for Trump supporters?

But when asked Youngkin’s top strategists Jeff Roe and Kristin Davison how Youngkin won, they answered: “I think it was a textbook example of the theory that candidate quality matters. We started with a once-in-a-generation talent in Glenn. He’s a genuine guy with a positive, upbeat attitude all the time who really wanted to focus on a positive, unifying campaign.”

I won’t bother autopsying the polls. On November 1, Youngkin was up about 1%, and on November 2, he won by about 2%, well within any margin of error. Bottom line: poll accuracy collapses whenever Trump is on the ticket, but otherwise they perform just fine.

Local Democrats performed just fine too. Trying to figure out what they could do better next election, I discovered that Democrats actually did a good job getting out the vote in my area. Where McAuliffe underperformed in some other places due to Democratic lethargy, here in Lexington and Rockbridge, Democratic voter turnout increased slightly from the last governor race. Where Northam received a total of 4,135 votes in 2017, McAuliffe received 4,342, for a gain of 207. 

Third candidate Princess Blanding of the newly formed and highly progressive Liberation Party took only 10 votes in Lexington and 38 in Rockbridge, so her presence wasn’t significant. Though if you combine her and McAuliffe’s votes, the total progressive vote gain inches up to 245. 

But the local GOP did even better getting out their vote. Where GOP governor candidate Ed Gillespie received a total of 5,445 Rockbridge and Lexington votes in 2017, Youngkin received 7,671, for an impressive gain of 2,326.

That’s how Youngkin won. John Domen of WTOP News explains:

“In Southwestern Virginia, which is very rural, Youngkin did well. In each county, Youngkin found a way to add a few hundred votes here, or another thousand votes there. Virginia has 95 counties, and even if many of them aren’t very populated, those votes eventually added up. So when you combine the boost in rural voters with those in the suburbs and exurbs, a red wave just turned Virginia a lot more purple than four years ago.”

At the state level, Northam received 1,409,175 votes in 2017. McAuliffe received 1,588,557. That’s an increase of 179,382. But Youngkin’s 1,660,438 votes beat Northam’s winning total by 251,263.

So 71,881 votes divide Youngkin and McAuliffe. That’s a much smaller divide than when Biden beat Trump by 451,138 a year ago. Trump’s personal lawyer Giuliani claimed the Virginia results were rigged, and Youngkin promised to conduct an audit of the 2020 election as soon as he takes office. Since the 2021 results are now far far closer, will he audit those too?

Regardless, Youngkin got out (much of) the Trump base. In 2020, Trump received 1,962,430 votes, 301,992 more than Youngkin. In comparison, McAuliffe failed to get out as many of the 2,413,568 Virginians who voted for Biden, losing 825,011 of them. A lot of that has to do with Biden’s approval rating—which isn’t as low as Trump’s was, but is still well before 50%. Newsflash: Virginia Democrats aren’t excited by either Biden or McAuliffe.

So how did Youngkin get out so many of the Trump voters?

Currently 66% of Republicans (according to a Yahoo News/YouGov survey in August) still believe the 2020 election was stolen. Youngkin carefully courted those believers, substituting Trump’s belligerent rhetoric with mild-mannered terms like “voter integrity,” which he said was “the most important issue” of the campaign. He never said the election was stolen—but he also didn’t correct any of his surrogates when they made the claim in front of cheering Trump crowds.

A similar number of Republicans (63% according to a Politico-Morning Consult survey in June) believe that so-called Critical Race Theory is a threat to public education. Youngkin courted those folks directly, claiming that CRT (whatever it is, since the definition keeps shifting) was being taught in Virginia schools and promising to put an end to it. One of his last campaign ads featured a conservative activist who has been trying to get Nobel-winning novelist Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-winning novel Beloved banned from Virginia schools for the last decade because it gave her son nightmares when he read it in AP English.

Those aren’t the worst numbers though. 28% of Republicans (according to a PRRI-IFYC survey from May) believe the Qanon principles that there is a “storm coming soon” to “sweep away the elites in power and restore the rightful leaders” and “because things have gotten so far off track” “true American patriots may have to resort to violence.” Even worse, 23% of Republicans believe that “the government, media and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex-trafficking operation.”

Youngkin didn’t court those Trump voters. He didn’t have to. They’re self-motivating. They are the core of the 2021 Red Wave that swept the Virginia GOP back into power.

So the question facing Democrats for the 2022 mid-terms and 2023 Virginia legislature races: How the hell do you out-motivate a pro-violence voter base who thinks your candidates rape and traffic children while helping Satan achieve world domination by destroying education and rigging elections?

I’ll have to get back to you on that.

I began this continuation of my Text-ured series before the semester heated up. This time the “text” is the 14,022 words from chapter seven, “Sequenced Image-Texts,” of my book manuscript The Comics Form: The Art of Sequenced Images. Since the last time I posted from this series, the revised manuscript has been officially accepted by Bloomsbury. The final draft is due this week — then the process of copyedits, indexing, etc. begins. This last chapter discusses the ambiguous dividing line begin text-narration and image-narration. Though this series is composed entirely of words, I think each falls pretty clearly into the image half of the divide. But if anyone spots a typo, please let me know.

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