Politics & Policy

Flag Protests and the Power of Symbols

Arizona Cardinals fans display an American flag as Dallas Cowboys players kneel before a game, September 26, 2017. (Photo: Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports/via Reuters)
Picking fights over anthems and monuments is the mark of an unserious time.

September’s controversy around NFL players’ kneeling in protest during the national anthem returned over the weekend, as CBS reported (then retracted) news that former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick — the instigator of the trend in 2016 — would stand in the future for the Anthem if he’s able to get a job again, while Vice President Mike Pence walked out of a Colts–49ers game in Indianapolis when some of Kaepernick’s old teammates continued his protest. August’s controversy around the removal of Confederate statues also resurfaced, as about 30 “white nationalist” losers returned to Charlottesville Saturday to protest the planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee.

Both fights are ultimately about the power of symbols. In each case, the original push to pick a fight came from the Left and was followed by a reaction from the Right. Symbols evoke powerful emotions, yet controversies around them tend to generate a lot of division without accomplishing anything tangible.

The trouble with symbols is that they have a history, and history can’t be changed overnight by any amount of reason or good will. Policies may change, laws may change, but history is always with us, and pulling it up by the roots invariably means digging deeper than we expect. The history of iconoclasm suggests that the result is more often bloodshed than reform.

The Unifying Flag

Let’s start with a commonsense rule: Whoever picks the fight over symbols is the one who has the explaining to do. In the case of the national-anthem protest, that someone was Kaepernick. It was he who chose the terms and setting for this controversy. His stated cause was to protest cases in which police weren’t criminally convicted for killing African-Americans, but from the outset, he framed it as a broad-brush indictment of America under Barack Obama:

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told NFL Media in an exclusive interview after the game. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

With Kaepernick’s wealth and celebrity, he could have picked any number of venues for his protest. By his own admission, he picked the flag and anthem to demonstrate his inability to show pride in his country. He even went so far as to defend Fidel Castro, a man who ran a brutal police state with a distinct record of racism against black Cubans, suggesting that policing isn’t his real problem with America.

The choice of the flag and anthem was as deliberately provocative as Kaepernick’s rhetoric. Lots and lots of Americans have an emotional, non-ideological connection to the flag and anthem as unifying symbols of America, its people (all of them), its history, and its ideals. That includes all the things conservatives love about this country and all the things liberals love about this country. The fact of our ideological, partisan, and tribal divisions only emphasizes the importance of the few symbols of national unity that transcend those divisions. America stands for pluralism; you have a legal right to protest the flag, but by doing so, you stand outside of that common commitment to the values of a nation where other people less privileged than you have that right, too.

Kaepernick knew all this before he picked his target. He isn’t some red-diaper baby from Berkeley, or the product of a forsaken ghetto cut off from the rest of our society. He grew up in Turlock, in California’s Central Valley, even today a modestly Republican and still very Middle America part of the state. He knew full well how much the national symbols mean to most Americans, and that targeting those symbols would bring out opposition, even from people who might have listened to his specific grievances if they hadn’t been bundled with a message of “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag” that represents America.

Left-wing memes have offered analogies to Kaepernick’s protest. Many of them just illustrate how blind many left-wing commentators are to the meaning of symbols that most Americans understand at an instinctive level. “Was Rosa Parks protesting buses?” Buses are not evocative symbols — and in fact, Rosa Parks’ protest was specifically about seats on a bus. “Was Martin Luther King protesting Lincoln?” No, he was deliberately invoking Lincoln, not objecting to a ceremony honoring the man. Other objections have tried to frame this as “objecting to black athletes protesting,” but let’s all be frank here: Does anyone actually think conservatives would have embraced some white hippie athlete protesting against the American flag and the national anthem? If so, you have many decades of American history to catch up on.

Did Kaepernick’s choice of the flag and anthem gain more attention for his protest? Yes. But it did so at a cost

Did Kaepernick’s choice of the flag and anthem gain more attention for his protest? Yes. But it did so at a cost, which he had to have seen coming: It focused most of the attention on where and how he was protesting, rather than on his underlying cause. The main defense offered by Kaepernick’s partisans on the left amounts to gleefully blaming Americans who reacted to this protest in completely predictable ways for their reaction. Which is more or less the opposite of what you do if you are trying to persuade people to change or improve something about the country they love. It is, instead, how you behave if what you want is a fight.

Of course, that Kaepernick chose to make this a fight about the nation’s unifying symbols doesn’t excuse President Trump, and now Vice President Pence, for throwing gasoline on the fire in a way that only makes Democrats more likely to continue treating these symbols as mere partisan emblems of the Republican tribe. Trump in particular managed to revive the controversy after Kaepernick’s inability to find a new job in the NFL had mostly stilled the waters; the president’s rant induced a whole lot of NFL players who were not protesting the anthem to protest the president’s demand that a fellow player be fired. Naturally, Trump’s insertion of himself into the drama only further drew the issue away from Kaepernick’s original cause.

Pence’s response Sunday was more temperate, as usual — he didn’t call anybody an SOB or demand that anyone be fired — and would have been better-received if Trump hadn’t escalated the situation. But it still fanned further fires under the controversy after Puerto Rico and Las Vegas had driven it from the front pages, and stomped all over a day in Indianapolis honoring Peyton Manning to boot. Pence’s move may have been politically savvy, given how the fight has played out, but it was a depressing spectacle nonetheless and drove politics still deeper into the world of sports.

The Dividing Flag

In contrast to the American flag, the Confederate flag and other symbols of the rebellion have always been divisive, meaning dramatically different things to different people. There’s a strong likelihood that anyone trying to make a political cause from the Confederate flag or Confederate statues or memorials today is looking to create racial division by picking at very old scabs. Focusing on 19th-century symbols, when there are so many bigger things going on in the world, is a sign of seriously misplaced priorities. That goes for the people exercised about tearing them down, and it goes as well for the people looking to make hay from defending them, such as Minnesota transplant Corey Stewart, who recently lost a primary bid for the Virginia governorship. It surely goes for the 30 idiots marching in Charlottesville on Saturday.

Here’s the obvious problem: To most African-Americans, Confederate symbols can’t be separated from the centrality of slavery to the Confederate cause or from the later use of those symbols by defenders of Jim Crow who stood in the doorway blocking integration and equal civil rights. That should be reason enough for any American in 2017 to reconsider waving the Confederate flag or trying to raise new monuments honoring the “Lost Cause.” As Jay Nordlinger has argued at length, we shouldn’t be in the business today of whitewashing the awful truth of what the Confederacy was about. Yet when we move from the flag to the old statues — when we leave behind promoting symbols and focus on tearing them down — a number of polls have found that even black Americans are at best split around 50/50 on removing those statues, while a clear majority of all Americans are opposed. Why?

Maybe because ordinary Americans understand what pundits pretend not to: Confederate symbols have more than one meaning, and have for some time, and trying to force people to change their minds about the meaning of ancestral symbols and history is one of the most unproductive ways possible to approach the project of improving society. Teach your kids the truth, but let the past lie where it fell.

The perspective of the victors in any just war is memorably set forth in Winston Churchill’s great and underrated speech of July 4, 1918 — poignant in retrospect — about Germany in World War I:

We are all erring mortals. No race, no country, no individual, has a monopoly of good or of evil, but face to face with the facts of this war, who can doubt that the struggle in which we are engaged is in reality a struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil? It is a struggle between right and wrong, and as such it is not capable of any solution which is not absolute. Germany must be beaten; Germany must know that she is beaten; Germany must feel that she is beaten. Her defeat must be expressed in terms and facts which will, for all time, deter others from emulating her crime, and will safeguard us against their repetition.

But, Ladies and Gentlemen, the German people have at any rate this assurance: that we claim for ourselves no natural or fundamental right that we shall not be obliged and even willing in all circumstances to secure for them. . . . Whatever the extent of our victory, these principles will protect the German people. The Declaration of Independence and all that it implies must cover them. . . . No compromise on the main purpose; no peace till victory; no pact with unrepentant wrong . . .

The necessity of demonstrating both the completeness and the justice of defeat is important; it ultimately failed in Germany after 1918, but for all the failures of Reconstruction, it succeeded, if fitfully, in the South after 1865. The South never again took up arms in any organized fashion against the North — nobody has tried secession since — and it did not rise again until it fully embraced the Union. That practical acceptance of defeat, emulating the example of Robert E. Lee’s surrender, was important; it avoided a further war of annihilation against white southerners and laid the foundation for the growth of the nation to a prosperous world power in steady stages from 1865 to 1945.

In the interim, two things happened that still echo in our fights over symbols. One was the development of the “Lost Cause” myth, the popular southern history that sought to recast the “War Between the States” as a noble and principled struggle that was nearly won and slipped away due to a series of ill-starred missed chances. The other event in parallel, of course, was the imposition through force and terror of Jim Crow, a comprehensive legal and social system of white supremacy throughout the former Confederacy.

Today, we have what might be called the “Lost Lost Cause” myth.

Today, we have what might be called the “Lost Lost Cause” myth: the progressive notion that the two were inseparable, that the “Lost Cause” mythology glorifying the Confederacy as a noble effort served no possible or conceivable purpose besides propaganda for the restoration of white supremacy. In this view, Reconstruction was a noble and principled struggle that was nearly won and slipped away, due mainly to the refusal of the former Confederates to accept defeat. In the modern progressive telling, any commemoration of the Confederacy was a plot to subjugate freed black Americans. But the “Lost Lost Cause” myth, like the myth it seeks to supplant, is incomplete in its effort to erase from past and present the human reality of white southerners over the past century and a half. That matters in particular when it comes to understanding the statues.

The literature and statuary of the Lost Cause was hardly the monolith on issues of slavery and race that the progressives would have you believe. Some were horrifyingly blunt about framing the war as a defense of white supremacy. But many others — indeed, much of the official history taught in southern public schools for decades — went to great and implausible lengths to claim that the war was about everything but slavery. That would scarcely have been necessary if not for the unstated recognition that a more respectable justification was needed to ennoble the bloodshed.

A Time for Mourning

The chief item of evidence trotted out in the statue debate is the timeline of the erection of monuments. A widely cited Southern Poverty Law Center “study” declares:

The dedication of Confederate monuments and the use of Confederate names and other iconography began shortly after the Civil War ended in 1865. But two distinct periods saw significant spikes. The first began around 1900 as Southern states were enacting Jim Crow laws to disenfranchise African Americans and re-segregate society after several decades of integration that followed Reconstruction. It lasted well into the 1920s, a period that also saw a strong revival of the Ku Klux Klan. The second period began in the mid-1950s and lasted until the late 1960s, the period encompassing the modern civil rights movement.

Similar studies are offered, frequently with major omissions, regarding public displays of the rebel flag. There is undoubtedly some truth in this, especially as regards the resurgence of memorial-building in the 1950s and ’60s. But it suffers both from the tendency to reduce white southerners to one-dimensional cartoons and the chronic progressive obsession with hunting for some syllogism that can be used to declare, as if by mathematical proof, that no possible good-faith opposing argument could ever exist.

The southern need to salvage something of which to be proud from the wreckage of the war was misguided, and it was turned at times to bad uses, but it was not inherently malicious. Nearly all of the manhood of the Confederacy was mobilized in the war, and somewhere in the neighborhood of 250,000 men died for the Confederate cause. Another 200,000 or so more were wounded, many of them crippled or maimed for life. Hundreds of thousands of families felt those losses directly. The economic losses were even more widespread, including not just the destruction of the unjust plantation system and Sherman’s trail of destroyed infrastructure but also the economic isolation that would plague the region as a whole for decades (partly due to the self-inflicted wound of Jim Crow).

Given the great sacrifices made by ordinary people for the cause, the search for some way to honor them is not at all surprising, and does not require one to assume a vast conspiracy to justify Jim Crow. Studies like the SPLC’s generally fail to measure southern memorial-building against the obvious control group: Union memorials of the same war.

In fact, there is a natural rhythm to a society’s commemoration of wars. There is typically a wave of monuments and memorials during the war and in the immediate aftermath, when the veterans come home and the dead are freshly buried. The second wave tends to arrive when the veterans are a gray and fading generation honored by their children and grandchildren. And those memorials are often, as in the case of the Confederacy, monuments to the generals as a proxy for the more numerous men who bled and died under their command.

Consider, in our own time, the commemoration of World War II. Twenty-five years after the war ended, the children of the men who fought it were chanting “don’t trust anyone over 30”; 50 years after the war ended, they were re-christening their fathers “the Greatest Generation” and flocking to see Saving Private Ryan. The National World War II Memorial in Washington was commissioned in 1993, 48 years after the end of the war, and opened in 2004.

The same dynamic followed the American Civil War. On the Union side, the Gettysburg battlefield was first memorialized four months after the battle, including Lincoln’s famous address there, and both sides began building the first memorials after the war (Maryland erected a Confederate memorial in 1884, but few others followed). Inevitably, the next wave followed when the veterans were old and gray. One of the signature events, in the case of the Civil War, was the 1913 reunion of over 50,000 veterans at Gettysburg, including more than 8,000 Confederate veterans, and that era was when most of the Confederate memorials were built at Gettysburg.

The driver of this timeline was the fact that the leaders of the day were men whose aging and departing fathers had fought for the Confederacy.

The timing explanation is especially strained in application to the 1910s and 1920s, an era when white supremacy was already deeply entrenched in the old Confederacy and outside pressure was minimal (especially during the openly racist presidency of Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic founder of modern progressivism). Yet that’s when many of the Confederate monuments went up. The SPLC’s own data shows by far and away the largest spike in the early teens. A reasonable person who was not in the thrall of an ideological crusade would recognize that the driver of this timeline was the fact that the generation of southern political, social, and economic leaders of the day were men whose aging and departing fathers had fought for the Confederacy.

The 75th anniversary of Gettysburg, in 1938, attracted almost 2,000 veterans from the two sides, a remarkable number given that their average age was 94. At that event, acknowledging the national goal of putting the war to rest, President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed the gathering and unveiled the Eternal Light Peace Memorial, dedicated to lasting peace among the two contending sides. As I’ve noted before, the “two contending sides” narrative was incomplete: By focusing only on North vs. South, it left black southerners out of the picture. But we shouldn’t use that omission to pretend that white southerners’ effort to honor their own fathers and grandfathers was some sort of charade, or that the nation didn’t need to find some way to be magnanimous enough in victory to let the defeated have their own monuments. The question, instead, is how to move beyond the old monuments into a future where black Americans are an equal part of the story.

Flags and Statues

It wasn’t really so long ago that Democrats, carrying the political project of liberalism and the uniform support of African-Americans, nonetheless recognized their own electoral need to throw a purely symbolic bone here and there to people who still valued the Confederate symbols. Bill Clinton himself, as governor of Arkansas, went out of his way to commemorate the Confederacy by signing a bill in 1987 specifically noting that “the blue star above the word ‘ARKANSAS’ is to commemorate the Confederate States of America.” In 2005, the Democrats made their national chairman Howard Dean, who had professed in 2003 that “I still want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks.” Nancy Pelosi’s own father helped dedicate Confederate statues when he was mayor of Baltimore. The turn of liberals like Pelosi against those symbols now feels less like a genuine indictment of men like Pelosi’s father than a lashing-out at voters who stopped supporting Democrats.

In my lifetime, the first big effort to nationalize the issue of Confederate symbols, back in 2000, was a ginned-up liberal panic over George W. Bush pulling ahead in the South Carolina primary. Bush had been the furthest thing from a racially polarizing governor of Texas and was conspicuously descended from a long line of New Englanders, but after he spoke to several thousand students at the controversial Bob Jones University, the media tried to drag him into the ongoing state controversy over the Confederate flag on state property.

As I’ve detailed at length before, however, the partisan politics of the Confederate flag in South Carolina were still complex in 2000. The prior Republican governor, David Beasley, had proposed a compromise to move the flag off the state capitol dome — where it had been raised in 1961 by Democratic governor Fritz Hollings, who served in the U.S. Senate as a Democrat until 2005 — to a less prominent site. Beasley was defeated in 1998 by Democrat Jim Hodges, a Bill Clinton comrade who sat silent as his allies pounded Beasley for taking on the flag. Hodges, after cashing his electoral winnings, later endorsed Beasley’s plan; he signed it into law after his media allies were done beating up Bush. Naturally, however, liberal Democrats outside the South making the issue into a national partisan and cultural lightning rod made it radioactive for years after that.

South Carolina didn’t really change its mind about the symbol, so much as somebody else tried to make an issue of it and lost: the Charleston church shooter.

South Carolina’s flag was finally brought down entirely by Republican governor Nikki Haley in 2015. South Carolina didn’t really change its mind about the symbol, so much as somebody else tried to make an issue of it and lost: the Charleston church shooter. Just as Haley recognized that the rebel flag needed to come down once it became the rallying cause for a mass murder, and just as the symbol of the “Ground Zero Mosque” needed resisting when it was explicitly targeted for the site of mass murders committed by fanatics in the name of Islam, the embrace of the Lee statue in Charlottesville in connection with the murder of a protestor likewise calls for it to be taken down now, to prevent it from being a rallying point for such people in the future.

Taking that flag down was nonetheless overdue. But flags and statues are different; flags are active symbols, raised and lowered daily, while statues reflect not only what’s been commemorated but a record of the people who did the commemorating. Of course, when a society throws off tyranny or occupation, statues may well be torn down in a political statement of contempt — this happened at the end of Communism, and also when an American mob tore down the George III statue in Lower Manhattan, ultimately melting it down into bullets. But the history of iconoclastic furies against the past, from the Protestant Reformation to the Taliban dynamiting the Bamiyan Buddhas in early 2001, is full of mob rages that led to atrocities. We shouldn’t court that spirit lightly.

Going forward, there may well be some statues that should, with mature reflection, be taken down or relocated. I’m partial myself to removing standalone monuments to Jefferson Davis and John C. Calhoun, the political theorists and leaders of rebellion rather than military commanders; Davis in 1865 and after was the most conspicuous example of a Confederate leader who refused to accept that the South was beaten or should be beaten. Nathan Bedford Forrest, too, deserves close scrutiny for his foundational role in the KKK. In some cases, as was done in New Orleans in the early ’90s, the better path may be to keep statues in place while removing offensive inscriptions. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Stone Mountain, Ga., with its enormous bas-relief (the largest in the world) of Davis, Lee, and Stonewall Jackson. Stone Mountain is an artistic achievement in its own right, and it would likely be destroyed or mutilated in any effort to remove it, as Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams has demanded. That would be a sad replay of what the Taliban did to the Buddhas. A wholesale eradication of Confederate statuary would eliminate the value of picking and choosing the worst offenders to single out.

Civil rights and equality are typically advanced by appeals to empathy and the things we share in common, and by isolating the kinds of extremists who marched in Charlottesville. That requires confrontation at times, but starting divisive battles over symbols is about the most counterproductive approach possible. America’s national symbols matter and mean something, and they should not be lightly dragged into partisan controversy. The Confederacy’s symbols, by contrast, are best left to their place in the past. Picking fights over either is the mark of an unserious time, one in which we’re more interested in offending people for its own sake than in making this a better world for everyone to live in.


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