I’ve been getting the feeling over the past few days that the Left is trying to troll us into defending the Confederate flag, simply by way of the trivial, obnoxious, and gratuitously partisan way they’re campaigning against it.
As one small example, take a Politico headline about “the Republican reversal on the Confederate flag” that led to South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s decision to call for its removal. Excuse me, but Republicans were in favor of taking down that flag a lot earlier than Democrats—about 150 years earlier.
When did the battle flag start flying over the South Carolina statehouse? In 1962, ostensibly to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the war, but also as a statement of defiance against the civil rights movement—defiance on the part of a Democratic governor and a Democratic legislature. And who negotiated the compromise that moved it down from the dome of the statehouse but kept it on the grounds? A Democratic governor, after his Republican predecessor had tried and failed to remove it.
So you might want to reconsider which party has reversed itself on this issue.
I’ve never understood how anyone can defend the official display of the flag, and I think it never should have been up in the first place. Admittedly, this comes to me easily. While I’ve lived in Virginia for a couple of decades now—long enough to say “y’all” in a way that sounds natural—I am a transplanted Yankee, and where I grew up all the parks are named after Grant and Lincoln, not Lee and Jackson. While Southerners like to point out that Civil War history is uniquely alive down here, there are still plenty of reminders of it up North. It was a part of our heritage, too, and we were very proud that those who came before us had been on the right side of the conflict.
That’s why I’m a little exasperated by some people who seem to be conservatives who have been lecturing me that the Confederate flag is an anodyne symbol of Southern heritage and military valor. One group, the historical pedants, inform me that the battle flag is not the Confederate flag, just one of many. Well, sure. But it’s the only Confederate flag people remember, so the distinction seems moot. Or there are those who insist that the war wasn’t really about slavery but about the North’s desire to assert overbearing centralized power. Yet this was in the middle of the era of laissez-faire, when the federal government was a fraction of the size it is today. The only assertion of centralized power that loomed as a threat worth killing and being killed over was the use of federal power to end the institution of slavery.
I don’t agree with The Atlantic‘s Ta-Nehisi Coates on much—he usually seems too interested in keeping racial conflict alive for political purposes—but he provides a good list of statements from Confederate leaders and supporters describing how the institution of slavery was the central cause of the war. This sort of information has long been available, and it debunks the revisionist history that has found purchase among some in the South and in a few other ideological corners. (I usually encounter it among the more doctrinaire libertarians, who can’t bring themselves to admit that the federal government ever did anything good.)
What annoys me most is when people tell me that this view is a “politically correct” rewriting of history. No, it’s the standard version taught up North long before anyone had ever heard of political correctness, and it is clearly supported by the facts. It’s the more recent Southern reinterpretation that is revisionist history.
Yet I think I can understand, if not entirely sympathize with, the negative reaction to the campaign against the flag. Many people have a sense that the Left has been chipping away at America’s culture and seeking to expunge the parts of its history that don’t suit their ends. In effect, they suspect this campaign is being prosecuted in a spirit of hostility to our history, and particularly hostility to the South.
That’s why I suspect this has something of the same motive as Internet trolling, in which you say or do something merely for the purpose of provoking a reaction. In this case, they want nothing more than to goad you into defending the Confederate flag, so they can say: See, we told you those right-wingers are all a bunch of racists who long for the return of slavery. Believe me, I’ve been there.
But that doesn’t mean you have to take the bait. The flag on the statehouse grounds does stand for the Confederacy. The Confederacy was formed to defend the institution of slavery. More to the point, the Confederate flag was revived as a political symbol by the defenders of segregation. It’s hard to generate much controversy over the flag of a political entity that was defeated 150 years ago. What makes this a live political issue is the flag’s appropriation, within recent memory, as a symbol for those who wanted to maintain a system of racism and injustice.
So instead of being lured into the usual cycle of hostility, it is better to ask: how would we deal with this if we were acting, not out of hostility, but out of good will toward our fellow Americans?
In this case, we would take into account all those who understandably (and correctly) see the Confederate flag as a giant unwelcome mat, representing the era in which people like them were oppressed and disenfranchised. Then we would limit the flag to those places and occasions in which its meaning really is strictly historical. Jeb Bush, who has the most experience with this issue, having faced a similar decision as governor of Florida, hit the right note when he advocated “moving the flag from the state grounds to a museum where it belonged.” It’s not about trying to expunge this chapter of the South’s history. It’s about making sure it remains history, and that we recognize all of that history, including the unpleasant parts.
The Left will, of course, make its inevitable overreach. They have already moved on from removing the flag to demanding that we strike names associated with the Confederacy from highways and military bases. The seriousness of this can be gauged by the fact that it comes from a DC pundit class who have spent years driving down Jefferson Davis Highway (Virginia’s Rt. 1, which goes straight through Arlington) and Lee Highway (Rt. 29, which runs south from DC’s western suburbs) and have never made a peep about it until five minutes ago.
I have no problem striking the name of Jefferson Davis from our roadways, but I wouldn’t entirely expunge Robert E. Lee, and here’s where I think the campaign smacks of totalitarian-style overreach, attempting to send inconvenient history down the memory hole. Lee’s reputation is not as a tyrant or fanatic but as a good and honest man fighting for a bad cause. I think it’s worth honoring him here and there, just so we are reminded that this combination can in fact occur. But you can see why the social media mob—which finds its self-worth in the demonization of a common enemy, and which can never, ever admit that it is wrong—might not want to acknowledge that.
Remember that this story began with the people of Charleston and of South Carolina uniting together in support of the victims of a shooting. The flag controversy is an attempt to disrupt that sense of common humanity and pit us against one another. That is the motive we should reject.
South Carolina should take down the Confederate flag, but it should do so not out of a motive of guilt or shame or resentment. It should do so out of a motive of good will for its fellow citizens, and out of love for the thing that makes us fellow citizens: the Union that prevailed in that horrible war.
We should remember that the goal of the winning side was not supposed to be about the subjugation of a hated enemy. It was about restoring their role as a necessary part of a free society. It was about the belief that America could not survive if it wasn’t united, and that the purpose of the Union was to provide for the liberty of its citizens.
We should take this opportunity to join together in affirming what the great Daniel Webster named as the real goal of the war: “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable.”