Like quill pens and Bull Moose campaign buttons, the Confederate battle flag is destined for the museum. South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who for honorable reasons earlier this week called upon the state legislature to remove the flag from the statehouse grounds, has set the ball rolling. In Mississippi, where the Confederate emblem is part of the official state flag, house speaker Philip Gunn has called for its removal. In Virginia, Governor Terry McAuliffe has ordered the state’s attorney general to pursue procedures for removing the flag from state-issued license plates. Perhaps not immediately, but eventually, these efforts will succeed.
The place of the Confederate battle flag in American public life has been hotly debated over the past several days (including here at National Review), and I’ve nothing to add on the flag’s merits or demerits. But it should be obvious that the movement to erase the Confederacy from history will not end with a few furled flags.
RELATED: On Lowering the Confederate Flag
On Monday, Baltimore County executive Kevin Kamenetz called for Robert E. Lee Park, a 450-acre expanse owned by Baltimore City but operated by the county, to be renamed. Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake immediately agreed, and the two are searching for an alternative. Just days before, a Baltimore statue honoring Confederate soldiers was vandalized by “Black Lives Matter” supporters.
On Monday night, halfway across the country, a statue of Jefferson Davis that stands on the campus of the University of Texas was vandalized: “Black Lives Matter,” read the graffiti. “Bump all the chumps.” Some 2,300 people have signed a Change.org petition demanding the statue be removed. Among the supporters is Democratic congressman Joaquin Castro: “As a world class university, UT should part with the divisive message represented by the Confederate statutes [sic] featured prominently on campus,” Castro wrote. “It’s time to move them to a museum and consider replacing them with a general Civil War memorial plaque to all Americans who died.” Also vandalized was UT’s statue of Confederate general Albert Sidney Johnston.
Democratic Tennessee congressman Jim Cooper demanded on Twitter that his state remove a bust of Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest from the capitol grounds:
Symbols of hate shouldn't be promoted by government. 1/2
— Jim Cooper (@repjimcooper) June 22, 2015
SC should remove the Confederate battle flag from its Capitol, and Tennessee should remove the bust of Forrest inside our Capitol. 2/2
— Jim Cooper (@repjimcooper) June 22, 2015
And both parties’ U.S. Senate leaders joined the chorus. Majority leader Mitch McConnell has called on the Kentucky state capitol to remove its statue of Jefferson Davis (who was born in the Bluegrass State, like his Civil War counterpart, Abraham Lincoln), and minority leader Harry Reid has encouraged the University of Nevada–Las Vegas’s board of regents to consider replacing its mascot, the Runnin’ Rebel.
Private enterprises, keen to avoid unfriendly headlines, have begun to self-censor. Amazon, eBay, Walmart, Sears, and Kmart plan to stop selling Confederate merchandise. Google says that it will no longer promote Confederate merchandise in its “Shopping” or “Ads” sections, because the flag is “generally perceived as expressing hate toward a particular group.” And Apple has removed several Civil War games from its app store because they contain images of the Confederate battle flag. According to sources at Apple, the games will return to the store when the flags are removed or replaced. (The company has explained that it is “not removing apps that display the Confederate flag for educational or historical uses.”)
And, of course, there are plenty of other targets. In the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall, where each state chooses two representative figures, Confederates are present in force. Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens represents Georgia, Jefferson Davis and Confederate colonel James Z. George represent Mississippi, and South Carolina is represented by Confederate cavalryman Wade Hampton III and John C. Calhoun. There is a Jefferson Davis High School in Montgomery, Ala., and one in Houston, Tex. There are Robert E. Lee High Schools in San Antonio, Fairfax County, Va., and Jacksonville, Fla., and there’s a Robert E. Lee Elementary School in Spotsylvania, Va. General Lee Avenue sits along the southwestern tip of Brooklyn, in New York City. And, of course, there is Washington and Lee University, under increasing pressure in recent years to ditch the latter half of its name.
For some Americans, these associations are a source of genuine upset. And if binding up the nation’s wounds were as simple as changing names and removing statues, how could one advocate otherwise?
But where racial tensions have been inflamed, many race “activists” — not the whole of the “Black Lives Matter” crowd, of course, but certainly some of its most active participants — have sought not to extinguish those tensions, but to fan them. Even after “Hands up, don’t shoot” was known to be a false meme, it remained the rallying cry of marchers across the country, who condemned “racism” in Los Angeles and Madison and elsewhere when there was no evidence of it. For many, the aim has been not racial reconciliation, but the imposition of a certain view of race on the wider citizenry: Riots are not riots; they are “rebellions” and “uprisings,” born from decades of oppression at the hands of that all-encompassing, ever-present spectre, “white supremacy.” In this view, Dylann Roof was not a rare maniac; he was just the latest and most extreme manifestation of the white privilege that enables police brutality and promotes voter ID.
The goal of folding up the Confederate battle flag is not to facilitate racial unity but to impose a uniform ideological perspective on dissenters.
In real life, of course, Roof’s massacre had nothing to do with the presence of the Confederate battle flag at South Carolina’s statehouse. But offloading blame onto the flag has enabled race “activists” to propagate a narrative of American history that bolsters their narrow view of contemporary affairs as a war of white against black. For these types, the goal of folding up the Confederate battle flag — or discarding a bust or renaming a school — is not to facilitate racial unity by minimizing the visibility of potentially hurtful displays. The goal is to impose a uniform ideological perspective on dissenters. If the Confederate saltire is no different from the Nazi swastika, it is no great logical leap to say that Jefferson Davis is no different from Adolf Hitler, and Robert E. Lee no different from Heinrich Himmler. The goal is to ensure that you read about Stonewall Jackson for the same reason anyone today reads about Hermann Goering: out of nothing more than a morbid fascination with the extremes of which evil is capable.
This is not merely ahistorical; it is anti-historical. To treat Confederates as men of unalloyed wickedness, tirelessly malevolent in both aims and methods, is to rewrite the historical record. There was wickedness in abundance, to be sure. But there was also valor and honor and much more. Nathan Bedford Forrest, Grand Imperial Wizard of the first iteration of the Ku Klux Klan, could be a vicious man. But his biographer, Jack Hurst, notes that not only had Forrest formally disbanded the Klan by 1870, but he “went on to disavow repeatedly its race hatred, to protest and decry racial discrimination, and, during his last two years of life, to publicly call for social as well as political advancement for blacks.” Lee thought slavery “a moral and political evil,” and his conduct in defeat served as an encouragement to reconciliation, not further resistance.
Men of the Confederacy, like men of the Union, were complex, capable both of countenancing a great evil and of demonstrating high virtue. One cannot ignore that over the succeeding generations, that virtue was emulated by many Southern sons, who employed it nobly in the service of the United States at home and abroad. Indeed, the American character as we know it is much indebted to the vision of manhood that appeared uniquely in the American South. The disproportionate contribution of that section to the United States armed forces in the late 19th and 20th centuries is an obvious, and beneficial, consequence.
None of this ought to be forgotten. But it surely will be, squeezed under the metamorphic pressures of political partisans who want to employ history as a weapon in service of their agenda.
There is a case to be made for shearing our public spaces of these controversial names. But insofar as this push is wrapped up in progressive racial politics, it should be clear that it will never satisfy. Rid this country of every Confederate flag, every statue, every “Robert E. Lee” above the door — go further: outlaw possession of the Confederate standard, strip mementos from every attic in Old Dixie — and the race-obsessed Left will not be satisfied. There will be more work to be done, more symbols of oppression needing to be excised, more people who still don’t “get it.”
Nations, no less than individuals, must know themselves. “Disappearing” the real, complex, deeply conflicted history of the Confederacy may bring us together — but it will be forced “unity,” under the new bondage of ignorance.
— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.