Entry 42: Rethinking Confederate Symbols in South Park

South Park. “White People Renovating Houses,” Season 21, Episode 1. Directed by Trey Parker. Written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

I may be letting this site lie fallow while I’m distracted by other projects, but the apparently indefatigable Matthew C. Hulbert—author of numerous blogposts and the excellent, award-winning book, The Ghosts of Guerilla Memory: How Civil War Bushwhackers Became Gunslingers in the American West—is putting me to shame and keeping things going. South Park‘s season premiere inspired Matt to think about the current debate over Confederate symbols and the role of historians in that debate (for more on that, see his excellent post on Historista), and I’m happy to give him a platform as Civil War Pop‘s long overdue 42nd entry. Enjoy!


SPOILER ALERT!

The 21st season of South Park kicked off on Wednesday night with an episode inspired by the recent bloodletting in Charlottesville. Anyone with even a basic awareness of the show’s history should have known this was coming. After all, this is a series that has excoriated pedophiles, murderers, out-of-touch and/or corrupt politicians, both major political parties, political correctness, racists, homophobes, reality television, Hollywood, American military involvement in the Middle East, the domestic War on Terror, the National Football League, internet startup companies, the gluten free movement, virtually all organized religions, and even our own imaginations.

Admittedly, such easy satirical targets in Virginia (neo-Nazis and white nationalists carrying lawn accessories) meant this topical choice could have just been harvesting low-hanging fruit. South Park’s writers didn’t reach for the low stuff, though—they took down the whole tree. As a result, the early returns are lauding how the episode “perfectly ripped” white supremacists. They’re also missing what I thought was the episode’s most important takeaway.

Whether it was intended to be or not, “White People Renovating Houses” isn’t just a straightforward shot across the bow of Nazis and Klansmen. For historians especially, it’s an important cue for us to confront the idea that Confederate symbols do not hold uniform meaning in the present. And, more importantly, that they are oftentimes imbued with significance unrelated to the realities of the past or our interpretations of the past in historical scholarship. In short, the episode forces us to reckon with the possibility that some Americans employ the Confederate flag in ways not intentionally designed to promote the ideals of the Confederacy (i.e., slavery) or to consciously support strains of white supremacy often associated with it.

Rather than a collision of neo-Nazis, anti-Confederate protestors, and anti-fascist activists, the episode features the town’s redneck contingent—of “they took’er jobs!” fame—marching, waving Confederate battle flags, and chanting, “You will not replace us!” Along the way, Randy Marsh intercepts them. “Will you assholes knock it off? Don’t you know every time you wave Confederate flags around you make the rest of us look stupid?” One of the protestors retorts, “Those things are replacing us!” But instead of statuary memorializing Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson, the men coalesce in front of an electronics store. The “things” in question aren’t African Americans or Jews or other standard targets of hate groups, they’re Google Home and Amazon Echo (better-known as “Alexa”). South Park’s rednecks believe that commercial automation and artificial intelligence have “took’er jobs.” (Again.)

Randy and his wife, Sharon, are the hosts of a home renovation show called White People Renovating Houses (a not-so-subtle parody of Fixer Upper’s Chip and Joanna Gaines). Their signature design involves tearing down walls to create a “more open concept.” The protests have interrupted his filming schedule, so Randy attempts to broker a truce with the marchers. He schemes with the town to find them all jobs: they will replace Alexa. Initially the rednecks are thrilled just to be employed again. After a while, though, Daryl—their ringleader and Randy’s own “human assistance device”—can’t stand the indignity of robot-like subservience. Randy doesn’t understand Daryl’s ingratitude; he tracks Daryl to the local bar and confronts him about missing work, all the while addressing him like a device.

Randy: “Hey Daryl, what kind of job did you think you were gonna get?”

Daryl: “Something that was god damn dignified.”

Randy: “Hey Daryl, sorry, but you did not go to college, so you have to take the jobs you can get.”

Daryl: “I’m sorry, I DO NOT GET THAT.”

Randy: “Hey Daryl, coal mining and truck driving are not exactly jobs of the future.”

Daryl: “Do you really think you’re different than us Marsh, because you’ve got a fancy show and live in the suburbs? Don’t you see we’re all about to be expunged?”

Randy: “Hey Cleetus [working as the bar’s assistance device], define expunged.”

Daryl: “To hell with you! This whole country’s going to shit! Muslims trying to kill us! Black people rioting! And Mexicans popping out babies! Pretty clear it’s either them or us! So I say, kill ‘em all!”

Randy: “Wow. What the hell was that all about?”

Now unsure of Daryl’s motives for embracing the Confederate flag, Randy goes to Daryl’s house and the truth is revealed.

Randy: “Why are you so closed-minded? Don’t you see that these walls have to be broken down before any progress can be made?”

Daryl: “It’s cause I can’t do it, alright?! I can’t take out the wall between my living room and my kitchen. . . . It’s a load-bearing wall!”

Randy: “Oh . . . God, Daryl . . . I . . .”

Daryl: “I tried, years ago, before the remodel, but they told me if I took out this wall, the entire second story would just collapse.”

Randy: “Jesus, Daryl, I’m sorry, I . . .”

Daryl: “So you see what I’m afraid of is very real.”

Randy: “Things are different now, it’ll be harder, but you CAN change, you just have to demolish what’s there and start over.”

Daryl: “You’re talking about tearin’ down the foundation of everything I know.”

Once Daryl opens up, Randy is able to remodel his house. The oversized Confederate battle flag that used to hang prominently behind Daryl’s recliner has been replaced with a much smaller, folded flag in a museum-style display case. Daryl’s gun case has also been replaced with an indoor Zen garden; he’s overjoyed with the changes. Owing to his acceptance of a “more open concept,” Daryl appears to have put his need for the Confederate flag to rest.


In the case of Daryl and South Park’s other marchers, the Cross of St. Andrew symbolizes deep-set fear and dissatisfaction among the white working class. Rather than an intentional hat tip to Confederate leaders or to slavery or to anything having to do with the Civil War, the flag is used to express various forms of defiance: antipathy for the devaluation of industrial laborers in American society, disgust for the “big government” that either outsourced blue collars jobs or gave them away to immigrants, and general mistrust of an economy that prioritizes robotic efficiency over the needs and dignity of human citizens. The Civil War is never mentioned—not a single time—in the entire episode. Not a single Confederate monument is featured. Lee, Jackson, and Davis all fail to make appearances. Besides a comical pepper-spray bout between Randy and a protestor, no real incidents of violence accompany the episode’s debate over Confederate symbolism. In other words, the episode centers on the Confederate battle flag, but it is presented as Confederate in name only.

This is likely going to rub more than a few scholars the wrong way.

We’ve spent years and years (and years) laying bare the mythological foundations of the Lost Cause. We have made the case countless times that slavery caused the Civil War and that protecting the institution of slavery was the Confederacy’s motive element. (Once more for the record: slavery caused the Civil War and protecting the institution of slavery was the Confederacy’s motive element.) Lately, we’ve also been trying to communicate to non-historians that removing Confederate monuments from public space will not erase history or trigger a wholesale purge of American ideals. With these important efforts in mind, conceding that the battle flag functions simultaneously in different capacities, and that some of them are contextually divorced from the war or the Confederacy or slavery, seems to threaten much previous and ongoing historical work to undo the damage of the Lost Cause.

But while history and memory frequently intersect—or better still, collide—they are not the same thing. And as I’ve written elsewhere, the latter is very frequently substituted for the former among non-historians. We [professional historians] cannot and should not assume that anyone and everyone using the Confederate flag as a symbol of protest is doing so in historical context. Or that they’re even aware of its historical context. Put another way, it’s very possible that real-life South Parks and real-life Daryls do exist; that the original Lost Cause memory narrative—which prioritized states’ rights over slavery and patriotic resistance to a supposedly tyrannical federal government over blatant treason—has been updated, evolved, adapted, and reapplied to the extent that the flag is no longer a site of memory owned exclusively by the Civil War. This helps explain why Daryl and his comrades wave the flag at everything. At Alexa. At a fly buzzing around the court house. At soup that’s too hot. Even at Daryl to celebrate his successful home renovation. They aren’t actively wielding white supremacy against the fly or the soup; rather, unfurling the battle flag has become a go-to reaction for when things go wrong or for when things change (even for the better) around them.

Therein the episode seems less designed to mock Daryl and his buddies for being dedicated white supremacists in the model of Charlottesville than for not seeming to understand why they resort to waving the flag in the first place. That is, memory narratives in which the flag exists as a generic symbol of “sticking it to the system” (very similar to how the Gadsden flag is oft-employed today) has overridden any in-depth awareness of the past those narratives were designed to makeover. Even Daryl’s outburst about immigrants and black rioters is presented as somewhat disingenuous—as a desperate search for someone to blame because “the system” has failed him. Along these lines, Randy is similarly clueless. He doesn’t like the flag being waved because it makes him (as a white person) “look stupid”—but in the episode, that ignorance by association stems more from Randy’s desire not to appear poor, uneducated, and unemployed than anything to do with white supremacy. This is why Randy believes quick, superficial fixes—menial employment and a home renovation—can smooth over the problem.

Now this isn’t to say that the flag has lost its meaning to neo-Nazis and white nationalists. Or that we should stop assuming that the majority of people who wave the Confederate flag are doing so because they at least partially believe in the cause of the men who created it. Or that African Americans shouldn’t look at the flag in exactly the same way a Jewish person might look at a swastika. Far from it. The men who marched on Charlottesville with tiki torches—and killed a counter-protestor—unquestionably wield the flag in celebration of the Confederate cause and white supremacy. I’m also not making the case that the flag can (or should) ever be truly disassociated from its historical origins. A lack of awareness of history might influence how people approach the past, but the past can never really be altered. Memory is powerful, but not that powerful. Nor am I contending that the flag, as an emblem of treason against the United States, has any business whatsoever on state flags or capitols based on these other contexts. (It doesn’t. End of story.) What I am saying is that we need to approach the issue of how Confederate symbols have been repurposed in the present with more flexibility, especially if we’re serious about trying to bridge the history-memory divide with the public.

At present, our default protocol is (understandably) defensive. We view all displays of the flag through an historical lens. From that vantage, the flag always leads directly back to slavery, Jim Crow, and massive resistance—which means any contemporary use of it is inherently the result of conscious racism and/or a willful effort to misrepresent the past. But there are clearly different underlying causes—or pull factors—that have attracted various segments of the public to the flag, many of them rooted in popular memories that aren’t tethered to our well-researched, well-articulated interpretations of the past. We’re talking about memory narratives that are often designed to obscure the past or, in other cases, to fabricate a more attractive replacement for it altogether.

Understanding these social, economic, and political attractions to the battle flag in the present—as the ways artifacts and ideas of the Civil War still shape our daily lives—is every bit as important as exposing what motivated Confederates in the 1860s. We cannot continue to assume that non-historians know what we know about the past as they use it to make sense of their environments. At the same time, offering historical knowledge as counters or correctives to Confederate symbolism in public life will continue to prove frustrating if we haven’t taken full-stock of all the reasons non-historians have gravitated toward those symbols. We will only be utilizing history to mask general symptoms, and not specific, complex, memory-based causes. In the process, we will become less and less relatable as public intellectuals. Eventually, it’ll be us saying that Alexa took’er jobs.

Additional Dispatches:

  • Since the departure of Chef, South Park doesn’t have very many black residents (hence, the lone African American at South Park Elementary is named “Token”) and, at first glance, it looks like the episode is probably devoid of black counter-protesters to avoid extra controversy. In reality, though, the episode lampoons our expectations; that is, it lampoons the way we assumed the show would make fun of white supremacists. And in that capacity, there wasn’t a better-suited lead than Randy Marsh.
  • Does it Mention Slavery? Not a single time. That said, it’s impossible to know if the showrunners were trying to hint that Daryl and the other flag wavers were finding out what it felt like to be powerless and subservient laborers. For my money, the series is all-time great satire, but that sort of deep reflection would be a stretch even for South Park.

Next Entry (probably): South Park, ‘The Red Badge of Gayness”

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One comment

  1. cagraham · 7 Days Ago

    Yes, yes, yes. I’ve been saying this for a while now, and I’m still slightly alarmed when I see historians surprised to discover that things change over time.

    So, how does this change your approach to talking about it? For one, slightly tongue-in-cheek recommendation, I say we declare a moratorium on referencing Alex. Stephens’ Cornerstone Speech. That seems a prime instance of this disconnect.

    I did a thing on Saturday on race, religion, and memory in Richmond. I was billed as the guy who was going to speak on “The Confederacy and slavery” but I got up and told them I was only going to mention the CSA and the CW in very brief passing, and we proceeded to learn quite a bit race and religion in 19th and 20th Century Virginia. By denying the Confederacy a central place in my talk, I gave them permission to abandon the baggage they were bringing on that front, and it worked remarkably well.

    I’m also working hard to get beyond historical cliches (like talking about abstractions like white supremacy and hate…which so many historians do) and get into close examinations about how those things worked in the past, in real time, on the ground. It’s usually not violence, but in cultural, social, and political expressions (in RVA, for instance, it manifests in zoning ordnances and city financing decisions) that don’t, on their face, appear to be about race. THIS predisposes and conditions me to think empathetically about our historical subjects as a precondition to thinking empathetically about the people today who don’t understand race but do understand cultural embattlement.

    Ok, I’m rambling now…

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