Politically speaking, it has certainly been a tumultuous couple of weeks in America. Within just the past several days, Obamacare has been saved for the second time in three years, gay marriage has been declared a constitutional right, and our nation has engaged in a serious and soul-searching debate over the appropriateness of the Confederate flag in the wake of a horrific shooting. There is no way I could write about all of this in just one blog post, so I’m not even going to try. I’m behind the Roberts Court on their decisions in the Obamacare and gay marriage cases, so I won’t bore anyone with a long form statement of general agreement. What I would like to talk about today includes a few topics that are considerably harder to write about—namely racism, our nation’s violent past, and an act of incomprehensible evil. And yes, the Confederate flag of course.
I don’t need to remind anyone reading this of the details surrounding the sickening, unconscionable events that occurred in Charleston, South Carolina nearly two weeks ago. Any sane human being can agree that the murderous actions of Dylann Roof are beyond the realm of reason and are antithetical to the values of a civilized society. The massacre that took place at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is the very essence of evil. The American people’s response to the shooting has understandably been one of shock, disbelief, and frustration. What’s more, Roof’s undeniably racist motivations have sparked a nationwide examination of racism (both past and present) in our society. This is, generally speaking, an appropriate response. Needless to say, I can think of about a million more desirable scenarios that could have led to such a discussion, but this is nevertheless a debate worth having.
What has struck me as odd, however, are the contours of this debate. This national introspection has, for all intents and purposes, been focused entirely around the Confederate flag. The logic train seems to have gone something like this: a disgusting racist committed an atrocity in Charleston, South Carolina; South Carolina, a former segregationist state and a member of the Confederacy before that, has a bloody history of racism; the Confederate flag flies on the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse in Columbia; we should take down all Confederate flags because their presence in places like the South Carolina statehouse foments racial hatred and creates people like Dylann Roof. This line of thought, while certainly touching on the outline of a real problem, is in my view extremely oversimplified and dangerously without nuance.
Let me say upfront that I won’t (and can’t) dispute the reality that the Confederate flag is irreparably tainted by its own history. It was created by a nation that fought a war to defend its right to practice slavery and was adopted one hundred years later by states that defied the federal government in order to preserve legal segregation. The Confederate flag’s history is impossible to ignore, with even people like Mitt Romney and South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley calling for the removal of the flag from the statehouse grounds in Columbia. Rand Paul, the presidential candidate whom I endorse on this very blog, has called the flag “inescapably a symbol of human bondage and slavery.”
So, do I agree with these public figures that the flag should be removed from the South Carolina statehouse grounds? Yes, although I think it’s worth noting that the flag flies there as part of a Civil War memorial that is a separate structure from the statehouse itself—it hasn’t flown directly over the capitol since 2000. I don’t think that makes a terribly huge difference, but I do think that the media has been irresponsible in its portrayal of the flag’s presence in Columbia. Just look at this article in TIME, which explains the history of the flag’s use in South Carolina and couples it with a picture of the flag flying directly over the capitol dome. At least they were kind enough to mention in the caption that the picture was taken in 2000, as if they hadn’t already achieved their intended misdirection.
Having all that said, I want to set aside the specific flag in Columbia for a minute. Instead, I’d like to draw some attention to a very recent Supreme Court ruling that, although it has been entirely lost in the kerfluffle of flashier cases, is nevertheless extremely useful in framing this debate over the Confederate flag. Everyone seems to have forgotten (again, I blame the media) that the Supreme Court issued a much-anticipated decision that dealt with the stars and bars the day after the shooting in Charleston. That our nation’s news outlets resisted the urge to fold that case into the debate over the flag is a testament to their pervasive obtuseness. In Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans Inc., a bare majority of justices ruled that the state of Texas can ban the display of the Confederate battle flag on vanity license plates. These plates, the Court determined, constitute government speech and therefore the government of Texas can tailor that speech to its liking. If the license plates had constituted private speech, as the four justices in the minority contended, the government would have been denying citizens’ First Amendment right to free speech by censoring the flag.
As I said already, this is immensely relevant to the discussion surrounding the Confederate flag. Using the Supreme Court’s logic, state governments have every right to determine that any tacit endorsement of the Confederate flag on their part is inappropriate and they are free to shut it down. I hope the South Carolina state legislature does just that. This principle has two important corollaries, however. The first is that state governments (and the federal government) can censor the flag, but they are not obligated to. It also states rather unequivocally that private displays of the Confederate battle flag are protected symbolic speech.
We ignore these two distinctions at our peril. It may be wise to remove such blatant government validation of the Confederate flag as the display in Columbia, but we should be careful not to use this nationwide reaction to tragedy as an excuse for our government to pretend the Confederacy never existed. And I don’t think I’m being too alarmist when I say we’re already headed in that direction. The Washington National Cathedral has announced plans to remove two stained glass windows that memorialize the Civil War and feature the Confederate flag. The National Park Service has stopped selling Confederate flag merchandise at the Gettysburg battlefield, with Director Jonathan B. Jarvis giving the truly baffling explanation that “Any stand-alone depictions of Confederate flags have no place in park stores,” because “We strive to tell the complete story of America.” Most shockingly, Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton wants to dig up the graves of a Confederate general and his wife and remove their remains from a city park.
This is what a debate looks like when things accelerate too quickly. Yes, our government should strive not to endorse the legacy of slavery inherent in the Confederate flag. That does not mean, however, that that legacy should be erased from our national memory by removing the flag from every memorial, park, and monument in the country. The Civil War, by its very nature, is not like America’s other wars. Our recollection of it need not simply be the story woven by the victors, but rather it uniquely can (and absolutely should) include the stories of our brothers and sisters—Americans all—who fought and died to defend their homeland against what they saw as a Northern invasion. I’m not saying history has proven them right—quite the opposite, in fact—but we would be wrong to pretend that those men and women weren’t born citizens of the United States of America and deny them the respect commensurate with that fact. Removing the Confederate flags from these historical sites is the first step toward erasing their stories entirely.
And let’s not forget the second corollary from the Supreme Court’s reasoning—that private displays of the flag are protected symbolic speech. Now, it certainly doesn’t appear that the government is poised to root out and eliminate private displays of the Confederate flag, but the private sector itself has already engaged in some policing of its own. Just look at Apple, who have purged their app store of any games that display the flag in any manner at all. Same with Walmart, Amazon, Sears, and eBay, who have stopped selling Confederate flag merchandise of any kind. These actions are, of course, well within the rights of these private companies, but they do next to nothing toward solving our nation’s Dylann Roof problem. They are acts of corporate hubris and showmanship, nothing more. And, even more troubling, they punish their customers for something they had no hand in.
And it is here that we find perhaps the most dangerous implication of the wildly-veering debate that we are having today. The actions of Dylann Roof absolutely should not be used as an excuse to declare that white America—and the South in particular—is somehow infested with rampant, violent racism. Does racism still exist in this country? Unquestionably, as so many recent events have proved. Does that mean, then, that every American who flies the Confederate flag harbors secret fantasies of murderous rampage? Of course not. Rightly or wrongly, the vast majority of those who display the flag do so out of a sense of pride in their region, not their race. Just as their ancestors went to war out of a sense of duty to their homeland (yes, let’s not forget that the vast majority of those who actually fought the Civil War owned no slaves), so do today’s flag-wavers take pride in the states where they were born and raised.
It is unfair, irresponsible, and downright destructive to point fingers at the white Southerners of the 21st Century and assign them some kind of vague culpability in the depraved acts of a madman. It is even more reductionist to blame the Confederate flag. Dylann Roof is nothing like the Americans who today fly that flag. For heaven’s sake, we’re talking about a man who wore the flags of apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia (Rhodesia?! Is this guy real?) on his jacket. No—as a white Southerner, I say with the utmost prejudice that Dylann Roof is not one of us. He is a monster, plain and simple. Such creatures defy categorization. They are set apart from those of us who value humanity and are utterly alone.
The Confederate flag that flies (at least for now) on the Capitol grounds in Columbia, South Carolina did not create Dylann Roof. Is there perhaps some unseen font of particularly vile racism that lurks somewhere in American society—somewhere where Dylann Roof was able to tap into it and feed his own demented hatred? Distressingly, the answer to that question may very well be yes. That is why, ultimately, I believe it to be a good thing that we are having a national discussion regarding the presence of racism in our history and our treatment of its symbols today. As Charles Blow writes in the New York Times, it is troubling to think that a Millennial could become a race terrorist. I think it is paramount, however, that we examine these questions in a way that brings us together as a people rather than by pointing fingers at our neighbors and denying them the memories of their past or any pride in the present.