The Corner

Culture

Re: The Dishonorable Confederate Battle Flag

In response to The Coalition

Jason — I think your argument is well-constructed, morally clear, and impeccably reasoned. I also think it’s wrong, at least in one important regard. I agree with you, of course, about the moral horror that was slavery. I basically agree with you about the ultimate issues at the heart of the war. I may or may not agree with you about the extent to which southern soldiers saw the war for what it was, but that’s probably as much a matter of my ignorance as anything.

Where I disagree with you is in your fairly ruthless application of reason to the question. Reason is a glorious thing, but it is not the only route to the truth, never mind men’s souls. Culture and history have complexities to them that are greater than the light of reason alone can illuminate. Adjudicating the status of Jerusalem, for example, would be easy if Middle Easterners were all Vulcans.

What you call a “whitewash” of the timeless meaning of the Confederate flag I might call the evolution of meaning. I am quite sympathetic to the case for taking offense at the flag, but I am also sympathetic to the southerners who say it doesn’t mean what the offense-takers say it means, at least not anymore. I know many southerners sympathetic to that flag, I know zero southerners who’d like to see the return of slavery or Jim Crow (a few of the Texans might want to secede, though).

Culture isn’t a science, and symbolism isn’t math; in this realm Rashômon rules. A Jew of a certain era might see the Christian cross as a symbol of persecution, not salvation. But wisdom, experience, and moral imagination tell us that this is not the only or best way to look at a crucifix. The swastika was for thousands of years a benign spiritual symbol — until it wasn’t. Some even want to restore its old meaning, which may one day succeed, many, many, many generations from now — I hope.

As a matter of reason alone, the United States flag stood for “white supremacy” too, at least when looked at through the eyes of African slaves and Native Americans. But I think everyone here would agree that while that may have once been one of many arguable interpretations of the Stars and Stripes, it no longer is (though I have no doubt there are plenty of professors out there who would like to argue the U.S. flag still stands for white supremacy).

The more salient issue, to me at least, isn’t “whitewashing” but magnanimity. The South was defeated. It was put under the heel of what it considered a hostile, if not foreign, government. I think history shows that Reconstruction didn’t go far enough or last long enough. But leaving the defeated southerners a symbol, while denying them all of the institutions and laws once associated with it, left open a path for redefining what the South stands for. As I write in my column tomorrow, that was part of Douglas MacArthur’s reasoning in allowing the Japanese to start using the imperial flag once again in 1949. He wanted to maintain enough continuity with the past to let them build a better future. That flag was once synonymous with Pearl Harbor, Bataan, and torture. In America and Japan it no longer is (there’s still work to be done in Korea and China, though).

I think that experiment has succeeded with regard to racial progress in the South, but came up short on the flag itself. But coming up short of a goal suggests that progress towards that goal was made. And there was progress. For millions of southerners, including our David French, that flag simply does not mean being in service to evil or supporting slavery, and treating fellow Americans as if they hold such views or are just too ignorant to understand the truth strikes me as a thoroughly ungenerous and narrow-minded approach to politics. That’s why I liked Nikki Haley’s remarks yesterday so much. She acknowledged that good, decent, and knowledgeable people can disagree on this matter, even as she announced it was time for the flag to come down. Magnanimity in politics, Edmund Burke said, is often the truest wisdom.

If I lived in South Carolina, I wouldn’t fly a Confederate battle flag. I wouldn’t hang one at the state house either. I wouldn’t do it because the cause of southern pride just doesn’t mean as much to me as the cause of good manners does.

Indeed, I wish this debate could focus more on manners: the chief mechanism by which diverse people in a diverse society get along. The flag is justifiably offensive to many, not least because of people like Dylann Roof who do not want its meaning to evolve and are willing to murder innocents towards that end. But treating every southerner with a Confederate flag on their bumper as if they support Roof’s ideology — or are too stupid to realize they do — is offensive as well.

The flag shouldn’t fly on public lands on Jeffersonian grounds: “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical.” Beyond that, I think good manners should rule.

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