GIVEN that the heart of 200 years of American government lies in Washington DC, it is often forgotten just what a strange bedfellow sits on the opposite bank of the Potomac river.

Geographically, the Commonwealth of Virginia (as it likes to be known) is hardly the heart of Dixie. But despite the hordes of ''yankee'' DC yuppies that populate its commuter belt suburbs, this is where the Deep South truly begins. Its state capital, Richmond, was at one point the capital of the Confederacy - the southern states that lost to the Union after a bloody and bitter civil war. And 130 years later, it sometimes seems many Virginians are convinced the war never ended.

The pick-up truck, gun rack and good ol' boy Southern mentality is as prevalent in Virginia as it is in Texas, once you're out of the Washington suburban sprawl. Driving South, this is where visitors will first encounter the famous Stars n' Bars of the Confederate flag - flying not only on the porches of homes and in the windows of saloons, but in some state buildings. But however much Virginia likes to retain its historical roots and wallow in Civil War fervour, it is finding its back against the wall inthe politically correct 1990s.

The problem is simple. Although historians disagree on the root causes of the 1861 war, the general consensus is it was fought over the North's attempts to abolish slavery. And even though not all Confederate flag-wavers are racists, critics say the banner prolongs a pro-slavery, anti-black tradition that has no place in cosmopolitan America.

Scratch some Southerners (thankfully increasingly few) and you might find someone who believes that not only was it a cryin' shame they abolished segregation, but slavery too. Officially at least, their time is running out.

Virginia's politicians are beginning, slowly, to catch on. Former state senator Douglas Wilder started complaining in the 1970s about the Confederate flag's symbolism, and kept complaining until the point when, as Virginia's first black governor, he was able to order it removed from places as unlikely as National Guard aircraft.

Ironically, Mr Wilder was replaced as governor only three months ago by a white, gun-loving, family values-toting Republican called George Allen, who - it transpired - hung the Confederate flag on his living room wall until it cropped up as an election issue. Mr Allen, who took it down during the election campaign, explained he was merely a Civil War buff who did not read any negative connotations into the rebel flag. His democratic opponent's bid to turn it into an election issue got nowhere. Mr Allen won by a landslide.

Last week, even the Virginia state song, Take Me Back to Old Virginia, stood politically corrected. After two years of debate - belated debate, some might say - the state senate voted to change some of its lyrics, the original version of which we cannot help but reprint for your edification: Carry me back to old Virginia There's where the cotton and corn and 'tatoes grow There's where the birds warble in the springtime There's where this old darkey's heart am long'd to go There's where I labour'd so hard for old Massa Day after day in the field of yellow corn.

Supporters of retaining the song pointed out that it was actually written by a black man, James Bland, in the 1870s. Apparently Jim Boy was from New York and never even set foot in Virginia, but never mind. In the past two years, however, the senators have spent hours agonising over rewrites. What was voted for last week was a partial rewrite, where Bland's ''old darkey'' gets replaced by ''dreamer'', and ''old Massa'' is removed in favour of ''my loved ones''.

Although the lyrics were modernised, some critics argued even retaining the melody would conjure up unpleasant connotations. However, the senator who sponsored the change, Madison Marye, said: ''It's a great opportunity to put the past behind us. This isthe new Virginia, but it's an old song that will fit the new Virginia.'' Debates continue to roar, nevertheless. The US Senate's only black member, Carol Moseley-Braun, achieved national prominence towards the end of last year when she single-handedly took on her mostly white, mostly male colleagues, and won. At issue was the flag of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which sounds like a trade union for teenage cheerleaders, but is in fact a group of genteel Southern ladies who while away their time doing good deeds for charity.

THE sin of the century-old, 24,000-strong organisation was to include the Confederate symbol in its insignia. And when the United Daughters asked the Senate to renew the insignia's patent, as it had been doing routinely every 14 years, the legislators routinely said yes.

Until, that is, Ms Moseley-Braun took the floor, gave a speech bristling with anger, and told the Senate: ''The issue is whether or not Americans such as myself . . . will have to suffer the indignity of being reminded time and time again that at one point in this country's history we were human chattel.

''This vote is about race . . . and the single most painful episode in American history.'' Backed by Ben Nighthorse Campbell, the only native American senator, she persuaded the Senate to change its mind. The United Daughters had lost their flag, and with it, another Civil War battle.

Still, the Southern rebels refuse to go down without a fight. When the operators of Atlanta's Georgia Dome stadium were asked to remove the Georgia state flag (which includes the Confederate symbol) for the duration of last month's Super Bowl game, they steadfastly refused. The game went ahead, the Dallas Cowboys whipped the hides of the yankees from Buffalo, and the half-time show was a country and western spectacular.

The lesson? If you can't win on the battlefield or in the political arena, there's always American Football.