Alabama and the Confederate Flag: An Interview with Nate Trudeau
By this time, it is well known that someone wore a Confederate flag at the YU election party. A widely circulated photo shows the student from the back, the flag draped around his shoulders like a cloak. For many, if not most, students on campus, the image was highly disturbing, with its clear connection to white supremacy and racism. Rabbi Kenneth Brander assured students in a recent letter to the student population that “Mr. Jonathan Schwab and Dr. Chaim Nissel promptly identified and met with the student involved, conveying to him our deep sense that the Confederate flag and the reprehensible immoral ideas it often symbolizes are entirely incongruous with our foundational Jewish values.”
However, Rabbi Brander also made clear that the incident resulted from a cultural misunderstanding. As he wrote, “we believe [the student] is mistaken that the Confederate flag can be divorced from the hateful ideology and racism of its past, but we also believe that wearing it was a mistake made by a student whose personal background, atypical of our institution, caused him to make this error; anyone who has spent time with him, discussing this or any other issue, knows him to be a sensitive young person. The highly personalized condemnations and calls for the university to expel him by parties unfamiliar with him are inappropriate.”
The “student involved” is Nate Trudeau. Trudeau was born in Texas and raised in Alabama. He describes himself as a ba’al teshuva, back in America “on a high” after a recent yeshiva experience in Israel. He was initially reluctant to release his name; judging from the brief time I spent with him, the events of the past couple of weeks have left Trudeau shaken. When approached, however, he was willing to speak with The Commentator and share what he was thinking on the night that he briefly donned the Confederate flag.
What emerged from our conversation was that, for Nate and others like him, the Confederate flag is a symbol of community, like the school flag one might wave at a high school football game. “When someone grows up with a symbol, it’s like a security blanket – people have their pillows, their teddy bears. Your brain releases endorphins…the confederate flag, for someone who grew up in Alabama, it’s like a security blanket. It’s a way for us to all get along as a community. For people who haven’t been to the South it’s hard to understand. What I did was nothing; people in Alabama have flags hanging off their houses, off their trucks.” For Trudeau, draping the flag didn’t seem controversial. The last thing he expected was to cause a ruckus.
Trudeau was disgusted to be associated with white supremacy. “I am not okay with racism at all. I accept everyone for who they are, whatever their race or sexual orientation. And there is racism in the orthodox community that has to be dealt with. But I am not one of those people.” Trudeau’s last comment seems to be a reference to a recent lecture given by Rabbi Jeremy Wieder in which he vigorously denounced all manifestations of racism and interpreted Trudeau’s flag-wearing as a visible sign of racism in the orthodox community. “People just don’t get it," Trudeau said. "I have friends who tell me, ‘Ya, wear the flag -- good for you!’. But they don’t get it either. I wasn’t trying to stick it to anyone.”
Trudeau acknowledged that wearing a Confederate flag at a YU event was a poor decision, and that he had not considered what the flag would mean to other students on campus. He expressed that he felt terrible that he had so disturbed people. “I feel really bad that it made people upset. I’m not the type of person to want to upset people, and I feel that something like this made people…furious actually.”
At the same time, however, Trudeau felt that he was deeply misunderstood. “I abhor labels. I don’t like hearing ‘us Northerners’ – we are all one nation under God. I want us all to be one nation, I don’t want it to be ‘us Northerners’, ‘us Southerners’, ‘us West Coasters’”. But despite his reluctance to acknowledge regional labels, Trudeau was sad that people who did not share his Southern heritage could only see the Confederate flag as a hateful symbol of white supremacy. He urged people to pause before jumping to judge their fellow students. “I think that it’s something that's fair to say that jumping to conclusions is not something that should be done in cases like this, not without doing proper research.” He reiterated that racism was despicable, but stated that “what I’m not okay with is people looking at me and assuming that I am a racist. I am talking about prominent members of YU…rabbis, looking at me and making a stereotypical judgement about me that isn’t true.”
Asked about Rabbi Brander’s letter, Trudeau expressed his support, approving his own condemnation. “Rabbi Brander is a smart man and he knows what he’s doing. If he thought that letter helped, I’m on his side. I know him, he knows me. I think he did it justice. He is, obviously, a rabbi, and if he thought it was right then it was right. He needed to settle people.” However, Trudeau did find the reactions of some of the yeshiva’s other faculty members upsetting. “I abhor labels, but if I can use one, I would say that I am a ba’al teshuva -- although we are all on our path to higher levels. I was coming back from Israel on a spiritual high, and this is creating a conflict within myself. You have these spiritual leaders preaching tolerance, and yet they tell me that I am a white supremacist. There are people saying, kick him out of YU. These are some of the comments on Facebook.” After experiencing YU’s virulent backlash, Trudeau felt that the institution betrayed its promise to be open to students of all types. “YU preaches that it’s open to everyone, it doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, straight, gay, whatever. But people weren’t okay with me….Again, I think that there are people in the orthodox community who are racist, and that needs to be addressed. But I am not one of those people. I have had a long time to think about this, and I’ve analyzed myself, and I know that there is not a single racist bone in my body.”
Recent controversy across the South attests to the fact that Southerners are questioning whether it’s possible to maintain the Confederate flag as a regional symbol without giving racism implicit sanction. When asked how he personally resolved the fact that his communal symbol is also used by white supremacist hate groups, Trudeau said that the flag was a symbol of Southern pride long before it was co-opted as the banner of white nationalists. He compared the flag to the Buddhist swastika, a symbol used by the Nazis for a meaning beyond its original significance. Historically, the “Dixie” flag was the battle flag of Northern Virginia. It was never used as the national flag of the Confederate States, despite the fact that it widely serves today as a symbol of the regional South. I pressed Nate, pointing out that the Civil War was, after all, a war by slave owners to preserve their right to own human property. “I don’t even know how to answer that question. I wasn’t around during the Civil War. I was just brought up in an environment where this flag represented something totally different to a new generation of people.”