For the second time this year, Americans rallied as one on the side of the angels. Both times we felt good about ourselves afterwards. Why wouldn’t we? We got to be virtuous on the cheep.
The instigating cause the first time was the murderous assault on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and on a kosher supermarket in Paris. The cause this time was the attack on the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
In France, the perpetrators were radical Islamists affiliated with Al Qaeda. In South Carolina, the gunman was a twenty-one year old white supremacist named Dylann Roof.
The worthy cause that brought people together the first time was support for free speech and freedom of expression.
This included a right to blaspheme, as indeed it should. It is unlikely, though, that everyone declaring “Je suis Charlie” realized this or that, if they did, they agreed.
In any case, it was plain almost from the beginning that hypocrisy was rife and that free speech wasn’t really everybody’s main concern.
The events in Paris provided an opportunity for self-righteous liberals to voice Islamophobic sentiments without incurring social disapproval; more than a few of them jumped at the chance.
After the furor subsided, nothing changed. That nothing would change had been obvious from Day One. Nothing demanded; nothing gained.
The Charleston church bombing brought people together around a hodgepodge of issues. There was a dominant motif, however: opposition to white supremacist ideology and politics. Hypocrisy is a factor this time too.
This time, though, a change for the better is underway. In a remarkable about turn, Southern politicians are leading an effort to get Confederate flags and symbols out of public spaces.
This is a commendable turn of events, though not nearly to the extent that is widely believed. Also, the thinking around the issue is muddled, and some of it is plain wrong-headed.
It has been suggested that the murders in Charleston are relevantly similar to the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. The Ku Klux Klan was behind that atrocity.
Because it was a church that was attacked and because four little girls perished, the Birmingham bombing struck a nerve. The Charleston atrocity also struck a nerve – in part because that happened in a church as well, and because, in Charleston too, even the most mean-spirited rightwing pundits could hardly villainize the victims.
Neither could they villainize their families or friends – especially when, as was widely reported, some of them publically forgave Dylann Roof. And, for keeping peoples’ minds focused on the atrocity that had gone down, it helped too that Charleston remained calm.
Historians agree that what the Klan did in Birmingham in 1963 changed public opinion around the country, making it easier for the 1964 Civil Rights Act to pass. Roof’s gun rampage seems to have affected public opinion too. This time, some flags are coming down.
The disparity is indicative of the fact that the differences between Birmingham and Charleston far outweigh the similarities.
For one thing, Dylann Roof is a marginal and pathetic figure, a troubled post-adolescent. He is also a mass murderer and a terrorist, but, as such, he only represents people as marginal and pathetic as he. In the 1960s, the Klan was the face of the Jim Crow South.
And, while militants in 1964 criticized the Civil Rights Act for being too little too late, it did realize objectives that people had struggled for intensely since the end of the Reconstruction era.
Keeping state and local governments from putting Confederate symbols on display has been a civil rights issue for a long time too, but it has never been a major concern, much less a cause for struggle.
The day before Roof’s rampage, removing Confederate flags from public spaces would hardly have made anybody’s top twenty to-do list. It hardly compares, for example, to restoring jobs lost to “free trade,” or stopping police from shooting unarmed black and Hispanic men, or beating up teenage African American girls.
Only a few years ago, when the threat of a tourist and business boycott forced the South Carolina government to negotiate with the NAACP over the placement of Confederate symbols on public buildings, the NAACP actually agreed to the placement of a Confederate flag on the State House lawn. This was the flag that the state decided to remove several days after the shootings.
If Confederate flags were the big deal that they are now being made out to be, agreeing, as the NAACP did, that one could be placed in front of the State House, but not on top of the building itself, would have been like agreeing, in 1963, that toilets and swimming pools could stay segregated if lunch counters and hotels were opened to all.
Now the flag on the State House lawn is on its way to some other location. Bravo! Even small victories count.
But the real story is the one that South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley inadvertently revealed, the day before she flip flopped, when she insisted that the Flag Question is “complicated.”
What she said, in so many words, is that, African Americans’ sensitivities notwithstanding, there was no reason to remove this or any other Confederate symbols, because the CEOs she has on speed dial didn’t care; indeed, not one had ever raised the issue. Therefore, for tradition’s sake, those white folks who do care about Confederate flags and the like should continue to get their way.
There it is: accommodating retrograde attitudes is the default position, but the important thing is what CEOs want. They pay the piper; they call the tune.
Haley is a piece of work, but at least she doesn’t prevaricate the way that liberals do.
Her CEOs, seeing which way the wind was blowing, must finally have ordered her to stand down. She then flip-flopped faster than a speeding terrorist bullet.
Ironically, she was right the first time – the issue is complicated. It is complicated because symbols mean different things to different people in different contexts.
What this particular one meant seven score and a dozen years ago is not what it has meant since 1948, when South Carolina’s very own Senator Strom Thurmond made it the symbol of his short-lived segregationist Dixiecrat Party.
What it has meant since then is only tenuously connected to memories of the Confederacy. The battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, Thurmond’s Confederate flag of choice, became a symbol of white supremacist ideology. This is why it has no business flying on the South Carolina Statehouse grounds.
But, again, it is only a symbol. Its removal will change nothing fundamental; it will barely even change anything symbolic. There are no breakthroughs here.
However, the fact that so many think there are is symptomatic of an increasingly debilitating turn in America’s political culture.
The old platitude, that “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” is being turned on its head.
This is the political expression of post-modern gobbledygook, of the idea that politics is a struggle over “discourses,” symbolic representations – not, as people used to assume, over political economic realities.
For example, in today’s America, it is more or less acceptable for police to beat up on African Americans or even kill them when they don’t show proper respect, but even cops are strictly forbidden ever to use a derogatory racial epithet that even here I dare not spell out – the fearsome and forbidden n-word.
Or when the Obama administration engineers trade pacts for its corporate paymasters that take away good jobs from African American communities and from workers generally, liberals express mild disapproval and move on, reserving their outrage for Dylann Roof’s flags.
Still, even in a political universe that attaches more importance to words and symbols than to harms more grievous than can be inflicted by sticks and stones, flags occupy a special place. How did it come to that?
* * *
It is a bizarre case of American exceptionalism. Flags make Americans, white Americans especially, loco en el coco.
Is it because generations of American school children started their day by pledging allegiance to one?
No doubt, this played a role, but the lunacy must have started long before the Pledge of Allegiance became part of young Americans’ mornings. If we were not already predisposed, who would have thought of anything so nonsensical?
The man who did think of it, Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister and Christian socialist – and a cousin of the socialist utopian novelist Edward Bellamy – had lofty intentions.
For one thing, he wanted to remind Americans that theirs is “one nation…indivisible.” Apparently, a quarter century after the Civil War ended, there was still enough pro-Confederate sentiment around to cause Bellamy to think that Americans needed reminding.
But his main goal was to join the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” then streaming to America’s shores from all over Europe, to the descendants of the English, Scottish and Scotch-Irish settlers of earlier generations.
The Pledge celebrates “liberty and justice for all,” but not equality. Bellamy wrote that he would have included “equality” too – he was a socialist, after all – but didn’t because, he feared that school boards, in the South especially, would object. No doubt, he was right.
He wrote the Pledge for school children to recite at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, the World’s Columbian Exposition, called to celebrate the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’ “discovery” of the New World – and, not incidentally, the beginning of a protracted and continuing physical and cultural genocide of the indigenous peoples of two continents.
Journalists and politicians were eager to take up the cause; before long, factories were turning out American flags by the carload, and healthy, non-truant children across the land were pledging allegiance to pieces of cloth five days a week (with time off for summer).
Of course, they also pledged allegiance “to the republic for which it stands.” That, at least, makes sense. Pledging allegiance to a flag makes no sense at all.
Six decades later, in a fit of Cold War piety and in order to draw “a line of demarcation,” as Lenin might have said, between American principles and “Godless atheistic Communism,” President Eisenhower added the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance.
He didn’t think this up all by himself; the idea had been proposed and championed by the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Knights of Columbus, and others of their ilk. Ike therefore had no trouble gaining “bipartisan” support for the idea; it fit the mood of the time.
But long before Eisenhower’s contribution, the American flag had become an object of veneration. To Americans steeped in their country’s civil religion, it was sacred.
Perhaps this is why Dylann Roof put a picture of himself burning an American flag on line. He wanted the world to know that he had contempt for a faith from which he, and other white supremacists, felt alienated.
This too is probably why white supremacists are keen on swastikas and, like Roof, on the flags of defunct white supremacist regimes: the Rhodesian flag, for example, and the flag of Apartheid South Africa. Understandably, Confederate flags get added to the mix – especially in parts of the country where people still have strong positive feelings about the ante-bellum South.
In light of all this American exceptionalism, it doesn’t seem so odd, after all, that a Confederate battle flag would become the focus of attention after the Charleston atrocity.
In a saner political climate, we would now be talking about gun control instead. The issue always comes up, briefly, whenever a major tragedy involving guns occurs. This time was no exception.
Nothing ever comes of it, however; and nothing will come of it this time either. Flags are where all the action is.
Therefore, when the furor and grief over Charleston subside, we Americans will be no safer than we were before. But if, as is likely, the inevitable backlash is contained, a few flags will have been moved to less conspicuous places.
* * *
In 1977, the United States Supreme Court ordered the Illinois Supreme Court to consider the First Amendment implications of a ban on a march planned by neo-Nazis in Skokie, a predominantly Jewish suburb of Chicago, where, at the time, approximately one out of six residents was a Holocaust survivor.
The authorities wanted to ban the march on the grounds that, for many of the citizens of Skokie, the sight of Nazi uniforms and swastikas was tantamount to a physical assault. District and appellate courts in Illinois, all the way up to the state Supreme Court, agreed.
But, upon review and under pressure from the Supreme Court in Washington, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the swastika and other Nazi symbols are entitled to First Amendment protections; that, although the Nazis’ intent was plainly provocative, their proposed use of Nazi symbols did not constitute “fighting words” and therefore did not compromise their right to express their views.
This was a landmark ruling in American jurisprudence; to this day, it remains the law of the land.
No doubt, there are white supremacists who, like neo-Nazis with swastikas, flaunt Confederate flags for hateful and provocative purposes. And just as people find swastikas disturbing, there are people who find Confederate flags disturbing too.
From a legal point of view, what holds for the one holds for the other; displaying these symbols is a protected form of expression that cannot be proscribed.
But displaying flags and other symbols, provocative or not, in tax supported public spaces is a matter for politically accountable officials, not judges, to decide. Those officials will normally be guided by the attitudes and sensibilities of the people they represent.
In general, since acts of commission are more salient than acts of omission, this would entail keeping symbols that significant constituencies find offensive out of government buildings. This would be the default position.
But in race conscious societies like ours, where inequalities of power and privilege are legion, not all constituencies are created equal. The default position would therefore tend to reflect the views of the dominant group.
In South Carolina, there are probably many more blacks who find Confederate flags offensive than there are whites who, for whatever reason, positively value their presence. But the whites have more influence – electorally (especially now thanks to Republican voter suppression efforts) and culturally. Therefore, when the issue arises, striking a balance can be “complicated.”
This, presumably, was what the good Governor had in mind when she discussed the Flag Question immediately after the Charleston killings; before her CEOs focused their minds on the impact on their bottom lines of Confederate flags in public places. Once they did, Haley discovered that she favored moving that damned flag after all.
Complication gone? Not exactly. What is gone, for the time being, is a political problem that was complicating her life and the lives of other Southern politicians.
But Haley’s way of uncomplicating her life has almost nothing to do with a host of genuinely complicated issues that rise to the surface every now and then because, more than a century and a half after it ended, the Civil War is still very much on the minds of many Americans.
In this respect, it is like the Second World War. World War II ended seven decades ago, but, even as the World War II generation is passing away, the war — and the events surrounding it, especially the Nazi Judeocide — remains in peoples’ minds. The swastika therefore remains a potent symbol.
In that case, the war is indeed the important thing. Because Nazi ideology is essentially defunct, what miniscule neo-Nazi groups around the world do with swastikas hardly matters.
It is different with Confederate flags. In the United States today, outright white supremacist groups are also marginal. But soft versions of white supremacist theory and practice are pervasive. This is what makes institutional racism possible, and it is why racist attitudes persist.
And it is why the struggle against symbols that homegrown racists have made their own is not about what those symbols meant a century and a half ago. It is about present realities. African Americans bear the brunt of those realities, but, in one way or another, they affect us all.
When those symbols feel like “fighting words,” in the way that swastikas do, it is because of what they signify now. What they meant during the Civil War, and what they imply about that war and about the Confederacy – or about the descendants of Confederate soldiers and other Southerners today — is another matter altogether.
White supremacists don’t grasp the distinction. How could they? They are morons.
It is understandable that, in the heat of battle, others sometimes go along with their confusion. In struggles for justice, drawing distinctions can seem like splitting hairs. But it is important – conceptually and politically – not to fall into their muddle. Distinctions must be made.
What makes Confederate symbols offensive – here and now — is their role in post-World War II rearguard struggles against desegregation, and in continuing efforts to buttress remaining bastions of white supremacy.
All the rest is for historians and other “disinterested” investigators to sort out.
The Civil War and Reconstruction have been contested topics from Day One. Everything, it sometimes seems, is debatable. However, there are a few obvious points that are hardly controversial and that evidently still need to be made.
One is that although slavery was a very great evil indeed, likening the Confederacy, which defended slavery, to, say, the Third Reich – in other words, to a regime that represents the very embodiment of Evil in the minds of most people nowadays — is profoundly wrong-headed.
Another is that well-meaning liberals and others who effectively draw the comparison are guilty of inconsistency, if not outright hypocrisy.
Except for a few “conservative” historians and pundits, and Southerners who think that they are only defending their “heritage,” the orthodox view these days is that the Civil War was fought over slavery, not sovereignty.
The facts are not in dispute, except in marginal ways. The debate is about what to make of them. As happens often in such discussions, people typically talk past one another.
Obviously, the war was about slavery. Were it not for slavery, the states that formed the Confederacy would not have seceded, and there would have been no war.
But were most of the soldiers in the Confederate army fighting for slavery? The evidence is overwhelming: this is not how it seemed to them.
Southern planters were fighting for their slave-based way of life, and, to a degree that is uncommon for economic elites, they did send their sons off to war. They comprised the backbone of the Confederate army’s officer class.
But what the vast majority of Southerners were fighting for, insofar as they were fighting for any ideal at all, was the “homeland” with which they most identified.
In the South in the middle of the nineteenth century, that was more likely to be their home state than any federation, or confederation, of states. In this sense, the war, as they understood it, was indeed about sovereignty.
Nowadays, this attitude seems improbably parochial. Remember, though, that in the same period, in those parts of Europe where paradigm cases of “nation states” were being formed – in France, for example and in Germany and Italy – most peoples’ loyalties were more parochial still. Nation building is a long and arduous process, and loyalty to nations is a comparatively recent phenomenon.
Most Confederate soldiers, like most soldiers everywhere and always, were drawn from the ranks of the desperately poor. Many, probably most of them, never owned slaves. This would not have changed had the Confederacy survived.
Those that lived, as most of them did, in hilly and mountainous regions unsuited for plantation labor, had no use for slaves in any case; and no use for slave-dependent plantation elites either.
For most Union soldiers too, the war had more to do with sovereignty than slavery. It was about maintaining the union of sovereign states formed at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787.
Because northern soldiers were fighting states that had seceded in order to keep the slave economies of the planter elites secure, they were, in effect, fighting against the South’s system of slave labor. But few northerners went to war for this purpose; few saw themselves embarked on a moral crusade.
Northern schoolchildren have been taught otherwise for generations, but all the evidence suggests that the idea seldom, if ever, crossed the minds of the vast majority of Union soldiers.
Indeed, northern soldiers were fighting to maintain a Union that included five states where slavery was legal throughout the Civil War: Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, and, after it broke away from secessionist Virginia, the newly minted state of West Virginia.
If the North had been deeply committed to the anti-slavery cause, it would certainly have ended slavery within its own borders — even if doing so would have made prosecuting the war against the Confederacy more difficult.
But slavery was not ended in the non-Confederate slave states until after the Confederacy’s slaves were formally “emancipated” and the last Civil War battles were concluded.
It is also worth noting that leading figures in the North’s political class – including Abraham Lincoln, for most of his tenure in office — were inclined to support efforts to send liberated slaves back to Africa.
They did not actively promote the kinds of white supremacist policies that would afflict American society from the end of Reconstruction on — but, for white supremacist reasons, they were hardly intent on integrating former slaves into (white) American society.
So, yes, debates about rights and wrongs in the Civil War and its aftermath are complicated, unlike debates about Civil War flags. Debates about flags are complicated only to the extent that muddled minds get distinct issues entangled.
It wasn’t always this way. At a time when politics, especially left politics, was on a more robust track, there were people actively involved in anti-racist struggles who made common cause with white southerners who displayed Confederate flags.
The Young Patriots Organization of the late sixties and early seventies is an example. Growing out of an SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) organizing project called JOIN (Jobs or Income Now), it took root mainly in Chicago neighborhoods where white migrants from Appalachia had settled.
The Young Patriots were allied with the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords, a like-minded Puerto Rican revolutionary group.
Along with the berets that members of all three organizations wore, the Young Patriots sported jackets with Confederate flag insignias on the back, even as they fought against police brutality and housing discrimination alongside their black and brown comrades.
The Panthers and the Young Lords welcomed them – flags and all. It was a matter of proletarian solidarity.
This would be unthinkable on today’s liberal left. But even liberals should be able to appreciate the glaring inconsistency, bordering on outright hypocrisy, inherent in recent debates about Confederate flags.
The Confederacy lasted only a few years. And even if, contrary to fact, its sole aim had been to keep human beings in bondage, the harm it did, as distinct from the harm that the institution of slavery did, was trivial in comparison with the harms done by the United States.
It was under the American flag, the flag to which Americans pledge allegiance, that the North American side of the Atlantic slave trade took place. Many prominent New England and mid-Atlantic merchant families enriched themselves egregiously by buying and selling slaves.
This was how more than a few of our great “philanthropists” acquired the fortunes with which they established and supported many of America’s most esteemed cultural and educational institutions.
It was not the Confederacy but the United States that organized genocidal campaigns against the indigenous peoples of North America.
And the Confederacy had no empire; it never spread murder and mayhem around the world.
Moreover, with no working class to speak of and hardly any financial sector, the Confederacy was comparatively blameless in sustaining and spreading the evils of capitalism itself.
Arguably, it was for the sake of the emerging industrial and financial institutions of capitalist America, and in order to facilitate capitalism’s westward expansion, that northern politicians, including Abraham Lincoln, made preserving the Union their highest priority.
In the final reckoning, the stars and bars are almost blameless in comparison with the stars and stripes.
So come off it, prissy liberals with “beautiful souls” and refined sensitivities.
Stop getting so worked up over pieces of cloth – especially when the one to which you don’t mind pledging allegiance is associated with much worse than the one you would excoriate.
By all means, get that infernal Confederate battle flag off the South Carolina State House lawn, and, wherever possible, do the same with other symbols that white supremacists have made their own. But then stop deluding yourselves over the importance of literally symbolic victories. Get real!
The time to get on with what politics is ultimately about was long before anyone outside his immediate circle had ever heard of Dylann Roof or cared about the flags he waved. Black lives matter. Flags only matter to the muddled minds of pathetic people, and to the good people who mindlessly follow their lead.
ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).