To no one’s real surprise, the national Confederate-flag debate turns out not to be about flags alone. It’s not even truly about history. And it’s certainly not about dealing with the issues of crime and poverty that still disproportionately impact the black community. It has now moved entirely into the realm of raw cultural and political power. It’s an identity-politics hammer that is “heads, I win; tails, you lose” for all too many conservatives. With the Left in the lead, you’re either a racist for refusing to bulldoze history or — if you go along — you’re still a racist, but at least the Left has you under control.
In a piece on June 19, I articulated a simple principle: Official flag displays that are intended — like the Democrats’ displays in the 1960s — to demonstrate an official commitment to white supremacy are vile and should come down. Flag displays at Civil War monuments, memorials, and battlefields are part of history and should stay. In fact, there is no principled distinction between a flag and the monument itself. If one goes, why not the other?
This is only the beginning. Speaker of the House John Boehner is proposing a bipartisan commission with a “broad mandate” to “review all issues related to Confederate symbols” (emphasis added). Creating this commission guarantees that the “debate” (such as it is) will carry on indefinitely. I eagerly await their conclusion that social justice demands removing all Confederate remains and Confederate markers from national cemeteries, no doubt to be followed by a mandate that Confederate soldiers in battlefield reenactments fight in Nike shorts and Target T-shirts, waving “Coexist” banners as they charge Union positions.
Let’s fast-forward and imagine an increasingly plausible future where Confederate memorials are piles of rubble and Confederate bones are interred in landfills — will America be a better nation?
But let’s fast-forward and imagine an increasingly plausible future where Confederate memorials are piles of rubble, Confederate bones are interred in landfills, and Confederate flags linger on mainly as fading stickers on a few mud-covered pickup trucks — will America be a better nation? Will a single inner-city school improve? Will we have taken a single meaningful step toward finding a way to responsibly end mass incarceration? Will community and police relations improve, at all? Will the leftist urban elite stop oppressing the liberal urban poor?
Of course not. In fact, by screaming “Squirrel!” at the top of their lungs, the social-justice warriors would have been rewarded with yet another round of pop-culture accolades and are empowered to engage yet another target. And, at the end of the day, America will be more ignorant, the cultural Left will be more self-righteous, and our nation’s history will be viewed as an infinitely malleable tool for delivering only Left-approved messages to the hearts and minds of our citizens.
Many thousands of the men who risked their lives and spilled blood to defeat the Confederacy would be appalled. Abraham Lincoln would see the malice toward all, the charity toward none. Ulysses S. Grant would be shocked at the notion, for example, that Pickett’s Charge represented “false valor,” and the great warrior-abolitionist, Joshua Chamberlain, would be disgusted at the thought of digging up Confederate bones to make a political statement. But why take any guidance from Union heroes when determining how to remember the past? After all, tweeters and Facebookers know so much more about right and wrong, about justice and injustice. After all, they’ve spilled their own online blood, and they have the hate-tweets to prove it.
As so often happens, the cultural Left is winning because dissenters are silent. Despite an avalanche of cultural propaganda, stubborn majorities of Americans still don’t see the Confederate flag as a symbol of hate. Yet conservative political leaders apparently believe that the loud cultural minority is more important to appease than history is to preserve. So fire up the bulldozers, the hashtagging Left will accomplish what no Union soldier ever could — knock General Lee off his horse.
Slave-owning George Washington, you and your phallic monument are next.
— David French is an attorney and a staff writer at National Review.