Yesterday I was in Charleston with CNN’s Jake Tapper and South Carolina state representative Bakari Sellers debating displays of the Confederate flag (battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia or other displays) at historic sites like memorials, monuments, and battlefields. The debate is below:
While I don’t want to repeat the piece I wrote last Friday, a few points are worth repeating and reaffirming. First, context and intent matter. While I was initially presented on CNN as a broad defender of the flag, I tried to correct immediately to my actual position — if a state or municipality is flying the flag as an endorsement of white supremacy, then take the flag down. Flying the flag, however, at Civil War historic sites or memorials — even on state or federal grounds – to acknowledge not just the actual flags of the South but also the manner in which so many southerners remembered the profound cost of the war is entirely appropriate. In response, I’ve heard a number of people say, “put it in a museum.” Yet what are monuments, memorials, cemeteries, and battlefields but open-air museums? The war sprawled across the South (and in parts of the North as well), covering vast areas of land. When the war was memorialized, it was largely memorialized on this land — and so were its soldiers.
Second — and I should have expected this — but my Twitter feed is aflame with people comparing the Confederate flag to the Nazi flag and declaring that if I support the flying of one at memorials than I “have to” support the Nazi flag waving over German graves and monuments. Comparison of the Army of Northern Virginia to Hitler’s army of extermination is sheer historical nonsense. The armies had different beliefs, fought for different causes, were led by men of profoundly different character, fought in dramatically different ways, and came from countries with profoundly different legal and cultural histories. If a person is stampeding straight to the Nazis to make their point, then they’re not directly addressing the actual historical facts of the American situation. Different historical facts compel different moral and cultural conclusions.
Third, it’s remarkable the number of people who still seem to think the Confederate flag flies over the South Carolina capitol building as opposed to flying by a Confederate soldiers’ memorial. The media has helped with this impression with clever word usage that stokes the controversy — often omitting the fact that the flag flies at a memorial but instead simply using words like, “the flag flies on the capitol grounds” or “the flag flies over the capitol grounds” (this ABC News report is representative.) While this phrasing is true, it is materially incomplete. For example, if I write, “Most days, the Confederate flag flies high over federal land,” a reasonable person would be surprised – unless I provided the context: “at Fort Sumter, site of the first battle of the Civil War.”
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank CNN’s Jake Tapper for hosting a remarkably civil discussion under fraught and sensitive circumstance (right outside the church and right after services), and Bakari Sellers made his points powerfully and well. He was a true gentlemen at a difficult time, taking time to warmly greet my oldest daughter (I brought her along for the educational experience.) I strongly considered not accepting CNN’s invitation — in large part because it feels like the wrong time and place to have the debate, so soon after the shootings and at the very location of the terrorist attack. Yet this is also the time when a critical mass of Americans might be considering the issue, and it simply won’t do to yield the floor to one side. If I’m willing to write my words from behind my keyboard, I should be willing to stand by them in person. I leave it to you to judge the outcome.