Congratulations! You Oppose The Confederate Flag. Now What?

Congratulations! You Oppose The Confederate Flag. Now What?

We are slowly forgetting how to oppose something without seeking its utter destruction.
Mollie Hemingway
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The U.S. Civil War was a war that never should have been fought. Some 620,000 men died because slavery, an inhumane and evil practice, was permitted in many portions of this country. The South gets most of the blame for that, but the north benefited from the regime as well, even though it didn’t directly practice enslavement at the time of the war.

I used to think the war was a bit more complicated than I do now, having had my mind changed thanks to some relatively recent guided readings of President Abraham Lincoln. But long story short, the Confederacy was wrong. For whatever it’s worth, I have no nostalgia for the Confederacy and zero positive feelings for flags that reference the Confederacy, save the one painted on the General Lee or, perhaps, the one painted on RuPaul.

For some reason, 100% of media types (give or take) dealt with their feelings of anger and powerlessness in the aftermath of the racist murders of 9 black members of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, by calling in unison for a removal of a Confederate flag from South Carolina’s capitol grounds. The flag was only put up during the centenary of the Civil War and a modified version was moved to a less conspicuous place about 15 years ago. Republican Gov. Nikki Haley called for its removal on Monday, as have many other politicians. Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention called for its removal earlier. Sure, sounds good. Go for it. Even acknowledging that the relationship of the flag to the people of South Carolina is a bit more complicated than outsiders can understand, I think it’s fair to argue the negative outweighs any positive there.

A lot of the surrounding media-led outrage over the flag seems somewhat cold, given the horror of what last week brought. We had nine black people brutally murdered because they were black and sitting in a church with a history of fighting white supremacy. With all due deference to hatred for a Confederate flag on a pole at the statehouse, this seems like an almost childlike attempt to miss the seriousness of the situation. It’s as if they expect us to say, “Congratulations! You oppose the flag of an army that was defeated 150 years ago. We’re all very proud of you, journalists!” This generation seems to excel at inventing controversies, weighing in on those invented controversies, and then patting itself on the back for being so courageous and open-minded.

The far more frightening reality that such invented controversies avoid is that mankind is full of sin, and that some of us show that sinfulness in racism and murder. Or as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago:

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

The murderer of the Emanuel nine has done something particularly bad, but he isn’t the only person capable of evil out there. And getting rid of a flag is hardly the remedy for the racism and violence that infects our culture. How juvenile to think otherwise.

Still, it’s routine now for the media to respond to tragic events with a call for more government control. It’s not just shown by responding to mass shootings with calls for gun control. Remember how, until all the facts got in the way, the media blamed a fatal Amtrak derailment on a lack of federal funding, of all things?

CNN actually went “heretic hunting” to call on businesses to ban any goods sold that in any way reference a Confederate symbol (which, of course, includes many state flags). Check out this piece headlined “First on CNN: Walmart to stop selling Confederate flag merchandise.” See, it’s first on CNN because CNN decided to trade journalism-ing for activism-ing:

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I mean, OK? Even this type of “Look! Squirrel!” avoidance of the actual tragedy of the Charleston terrorism was better than the naked political point scoring that was hard to distinguish from this fundraising email sent out by the Democratic Congressional Committee:

Coverage has been oddly partisan — and in ways that counter reality — as the media rush to make this Confederate flag issue a problem for … Republicans. Funny how it always, always, always works out that way, isn’t it?

The bulk of this NPR story on the history of the South Carolina flag literally doesn’t mention Democratic contenders for president after cataloguing various responses of Republicans in the field. This even though Hillary Rodham Clinton was First Lady of Arkansas at the precise moment in time that Bill Clinton signed into law a flag that explicitly honored the Confederacy. As reported by the Daily Caller:

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Philip Bump of the Washington Post wrote a story defending Bill Clinton following the discovery of Confederacy-themed Clinton campaign buttons. He rightly noted that anyone could make such a button. But check out how he discusses — or fails to discuss — Bill Clinton signing into law the acceptance of the flag that Clinton specifically says commemorates the Confederacy:

Clinton, a Southern governor of a state whose flag still alludes to its history in the Confederacy, needed to solidify support from nearby states to have a chance at unseating George H.W. Bush.

Yes, Philip. It “still” alludes to its history because Bill Clinton signed a law ensuring it did.

Rename All The Things, Smash All The Statues

And now the media are hopping all over the place. Within a few hours they had moved on from their noble campaign of (largely meaningless but whatever) flag justice/posturing/attention in South Carolina to every state but Arkansas that is so tainted.

And then within a few minutes, they had moved on to renaming literally everything.

In a completely serious piece for Commentary, historian Max Boot writes:

Not only should the Confederate flag come down, but I believe it’s also time for Southern states to change place names in honor of traitors such as Jefferson Davis.

I know, I know: it’s a slippery slope that could eventually result in taking slaveholders such as George Washington off our currency or even renaming our national capital.

He thought that people would forgive Washington for having done good things, too. He has more confidence than I do in the progressive left.

A bunch of New York Times reporters jumped on the bandwagon:

One wonders whether they understand the difference between men such as Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee or if the only thing that matters about them is their affiliation with the Confederacy.

And Stars and Stripes is polling people on whether to rename military bases named after Confederates.

Even Texas is experiencing some of the frenzy. The Texas Tribune reports, “Momentum Builds to Remove UT Confederate Statue.”

I can’t help but notice that no one is calling to rename the Woodrow Wilson bridge right by my house, even though Wilson’s racism was personal, political, focused on eugenics and far more recent than any Civil War-era leader.

How we treat symbols we disagree with

Basically it’s just such a hysterical atmosphere at this point, that no one can conceive of a person who is against something but also willing to tolerate the expression of that thing. Can we be against Jeff Davis — and also against destroying art and monuments and history just because they involve Jeff Davis?

Symbols are tremendously important, and state sponsorship of symbols is very much worth fighting about. But there are ways to express disapproval of art, monuments and aspects of history without taking the approach of, say, blowing up the Buddhas, to take one recent example.

And how we manage these processes of disapproval truly is important for civil society. To quote Heinrich Heine, a man who definitely knew of what he spoke, “Where they have burned books, they will end in burning men.” Mobs aren’t actually the best judges of such processes, no matter how righteous they feel or certain of their cause.

Listen, it’s great that we’re aiming to be an anti-racist society. That’s very, very good! But it’s bad that we are slowly forgetting how to dislike something without seeking its utter destruction. Somehow we’ve abandoned the aesthetic of Abraham Lincoln for that of Mao Tse-Tung.

When I first moved to the D.C. area from Colorado, I had a bit of culture shock relative to the Confederate symbols on display here. I live not a mile from a cannon that marks where Confederate troops gathered to go off and fight. But rather than call for its removal, I’ve used it to learn history and teach my children about their commonwealth’s history. And I’ve used other monuments, cemeteries and buildings to teach my children about their history, including both the good and bad points.

I wouldn’t put Confederate kitsch up in my house, but mainstream media figure Claire Shipman and former Obama press secretary Jay Carney put up Communist kitsch in their house. There is something intriguing about how the elite left tolerates art celebrating those who killed 100 million people in the last century, but seeks the erasure of anything associated with the Confederacy.

As always, Popehat has the perfect compromise solution:

Anthony Esolen writes about how we must be careful to teach children debates and not just propaganda, lest we harm them. In Ten Ways To Destroy The Imagination Of Your Child, he writes:

Southern partisans still rankle over Lincoln’s centralization of power and his assertion that the states are strictly subordinate to the federal government and have no real sovereignty of their own. Their position is one worthy of consideration; but do not consider it. We do not want students to support or oppose Lincoln’s policies based on some well-thought philosophy of government. We want them to snicker.

So, for instance, we assume that Lincoln was right to go to war against the South, because the southerners who prosecuted the war were all nasty slave owners. It isn’t true, but it absolves us of the need to take the southern position seriously. Then we say that Lincoln himself thought that blacks were an inferior race. We neglect to mention that just about everybody thought so, too, including the abolitionists; it was the foolish “scientific” consensus of the day. Then we say that Lincoln mismanaged the war, and that his generals were bloodthirsty brutes….If possible, we toss in a modern rumor that Lincoln was a homosexual. There’s no evidence for it, but the tactic works in a couple of ways at once. It diverts attention from the man’s heroism, and it reduces him to a counter in a modern political game. It also–though it is politically incorrect for the teacher or textbook writer to admit it–makes him appear a bit contemptuous.

In an earlier chapter, he writes:

If you feed children enough of what is politically motivated, regardless of the direction of the motive, you will insinuate into their minds that all the humanistic subjects they study, and some of the scientific ones too, are power games and nothing more.

One might be forgiven for thinking that is the goal of modern outrage politics — to turn everything into power games and nothing more.

I agree with New York Times reporter Lydia Polgreen:

This is in fact what outrage culture does. We’re addicted to judgment porn, and this is just the latest example. And just like traditional porn, outrage porn serves only for momentary release. Confederate flag burning doesn’t actually do anything to stop racism. It’s a complete sideshow. And once we’ve blown up every confederate statue and smashed every tombstone with Confederate marks and erased all evidence of the Confederacy from our roads, we’ll still have the scourge of racism and every other sin with us.

Mollie Ziegler Hemingway is a senior editor at The Federalist. Follow her on Twitter at @mzhemingway

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