Sunday, June 21, 2015

A Symbol of Hate?

A few days ago a white man walked into a historic black church and killed 9 black people in a state that once supported the subjugation of black people, and officially sanctioned the notion of white superiority.  This white man left behind a trail of pictures on the internet of himself holding the Confederate Battle Flag and burning the American flag.  This man's writings admit that he believed blacks to be inferior, and asserted that apartheid was rational and justified.  This man claimed he was acting courageously to defend his own dominant race against another race, that clearly holds less power in our society.

Despite all of this, certain clueless white people still claim we will never know why this man committed these horrific crimes.  They insist that his actions were due to mental illness, which is absolutely true in a sense, but downplay the racist motives behind the attacks.  These same people would never dream of mentioning mental illness in the same sentence or paragraph about the motives of a foreign or domestic terrorist that was linked to Islamic extremism.  To do so would be seen as excusing or even condoning their beliefs. Anti-Islamists insist that the religion itself and all of its symbols are the root cause of the violence committed by it's followers, and that we must actively suppress and de-legitimize Islam in order to protect ourselves from these extremists.  These people will rail and scream at anyone who tries to defend Islam, which has billions of peaceful adherents and will blame those peaceful adherents for "complicity" in these crimes.  But many of these same people refuse to acknowledge their own symbol of evil that they continually fight to protect: the Confederate Flag.

Mitt Romney, a clueless white guy if there ever was one, actually had the courage to say that the Confederate Flag is a "symbol of hate to many" and called for it to be taken down.  It isn't clear whether he meant permanently or just for the short term to honor the fallen, but either way, for a rich white Republican to actually say this took some courage, because he knows it will cost him some support amongst his base of followers.  The flag obviously means many different things to different people, but to call the Confederate flag a "symbol of hate" is a gross over-simplification.

The flag first and foremost is a symbol of insurrection against the United States of America and treason against the Constitution - the war was instigated by a declaration of secession from the union, followed by willful resistance to the authority of the army of the United States.  It is a symbol of rejection of democracy - a refusal to accept the outcome of a national popular presidential election, even before that president could ever act.  It is a symbol of fascism and selfishness - of putting the interests of rich land-owners over the interests of the much larger population that lives within that land.  It is a symbol of absolute intransigence, an unwillingness to accept even gradual incremental progress - the mere limitation of the expansion of slavery into new states and territories. It is a symbol of elevating "states rights" over human rights - an insistence that regional concerns justifies war against your fellow citizens.

Defenders of the flag would like to claim that it represents a spirit of a resistance against tyranny, but it is actually a symbol of tyranny - tyranny of the white race over the black race.  They would like to believe it symbolizes the unity of a community against the aggression of another community, but it is actually the rejection of the authority of a just democratic government.  Confederate flag wavers would like to believe that they are free-thinkers dedicated to the ideal of individual rights, but it actually represents yet another time in history when "individuals" were manipulated by the rich and powerful to take up arms against other "individuals" to serve the interests of the powerful.  They would like to believe that the flag symbolizes what is good and pure about southern culture, but it actually represents the dark and evil under-belly of that culture.

Southern culture is unique, special, beautiful and even noble.  But like all other cultures on the planet, it is also imperfect, full of contradictions and flaws.  The traditions of a culture must never be held in higher esteem than progress toward human justice and equality for all.  The founders of this great nation understood that, and recognized that British culture was still a cherished part of their heritage even while they took up arms to sever ties to the British monarchy.  When they threw tea into the harbor, it wasn't a rejection of all things British, it was a rejection of the authority of a foreign government that was no longer acting in the bests interests of the colonies.  They needed a new flag to represent the new nation they formed, but they still respected the culture and the history that got them to that point. But when the rebel states created their own flag, they were rejecting their own government, created by and for their own people.  They were trying to claim that their own separate cultural identity was a valid reason for severing ties with their fellow Americans.  The rebels cannot claim they were acting in the same manner as the founding fathers, in truth they were rejecting those founding fathers.

When we see the Confederate Flag flying high at the South Carolina State House all Americans should see it for what it really is.  It is a statement by the government of South Carolina that rebellion was justified, and that their true allegiance lies not to the United States of America, but to a failed government from 150 years ago that was established solely to protect the interests of white slave-owning oligarchs. It flies there as if to say that South Carolina answers to a law higher than the Constitution of the United States of America.  It is there as a thumb in the eye to the North, a childish act of impudence meant to declare that no other government holds true authority over theirs.

If you believe that Southern culture is threatened by carpetbaggers from the North, or by illegal immigrants from Mexico, or by the growing Islamic population o whatever, then the best way to protect that culture is to improve it by weeding out the dangerous negative aspects of that culture. Southerners should take pride in those aspects of their culture that are worthy of celebration, and stop trying to tie those positive aspects to the symbols of their failures and their flaws.  Find a new symbol, I don't care what it is - peaches, magnolias, grits, tire swings, whatever - just pick something other than the flag of the confederacy.  Then we can all be proud that we've finally put the most awful event in American history behind us.

South Carolinians should not see removal of the flag as a total surrender to the inevitable demise of their unique cultural identity.  Nor should it be taken by anyone to mean that the southern states were the only ones guilty of racism.  Intelligent people who have studied our history know that racism was alive and well in the northern states, and the prevailing opinion was that the "Negro race" was inferior.  Even the great emancipator himself took many years before he finally was convinced that ending slavery entirely was the only way for the country to move forward. All of our ancestors were culpable in these crimes, the difference is, northern states don't proudly fly banners that commemorate the great lengths they went to perpetuate these crimes.

For over 50 years we've tolerated that flag, because our constitution and our culture honors free expression, and recognizes that symbols mean different things to different people. As an American, you are free to argue over my interpretation of what that flag means to me, and I won't debate you, because you are entitle to your opinion.  Nobody has ever forced the government of South Carolina to remove the flag, even though many have tried.  Surveys clearly show the majority of blacks see it a symbol of their oppression, but they tolerate it because they have much more important issues affecting their daily lives that need to be solved, before they worry about a petty symbol.  The Northern states that sacrificed many lives to protect this great nation, respect the sacrifices of their Southern counter-parts.  We have bent over backwards to allow Southern states to maintain some semblance of pride, even though their own former leaders like Robert E. Lee rejected the symbols of insurrection, and advised them "not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavoured to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered."  Unfortunately, too many people are unwilling to leave the past behind.

The first amendment precludes us from eliminating this odious symbol by legislative mandate, and that is absolutely fair and correct.  We hold ourselves to a higher standard than nations like Germany, where the use of the Nazi swastika is strictly forbidden by law.  If it were up to me,  the Confederate flag like the Nazi swastika, would only be displayed in museums and history books so that we never forget what it was and what it came to stand for. But it is not my opinion that matters - it is up to the people of South Carolina to ultimately make this choice.  The people should choose symbols that represent them well, and for their own sake they should reject the Confederate flag.  The legislature of the state should immediately vote to remove this symbol from all public offices, to recognize that it works against the principals we hold dear.  They should remove the flag so that nobody in South Carolina will ever falsely believe that their state government condones the evil it represents.

When John McCain reversed his position on the flag in 2000 to pander to South Carolina's voters, he showed himself to be just another politician and diminished his worthiness to be president of the United States.  But so many politicians today are doing the exact same thing. If the legislature acts now to remove the flag, it will cost them future votes from many of their constituents that refuse to see what the flag really represents.  But it would be a refreshing sign to see politicians actually behave as statesman, and do what they know is right, rather than what will get them the most votes. In some small way, this might even help establish some faith in republican (small "r") government and maybe even help reverse the trend toward apathy and disenfranchisement amongst our youth.  But I hold no rational hope for such a thing to happen, until the majority of voters in the gerrymandered districts of South Carolina actually act to force their leaders into action.

Removing the flag from the state house won't end acts of terror such as those committed by the monster whose name I won't even use here.  It won't end racism, hate crimes, discrimination, Jim Crow systems of class suppression, or even completely enlighten whites to the true causes of the civil war.  But if it were removed today it would send an unambiguous signal that the people of South Carolina condemn the actions of this monster, reject the hatred that caused it and will no longer idolize and revere rebels and slave-owners above those that fought for freedom and a better life for everyone.  It would signify a forward thinking state that embraces progress over tradition, and one that is proud to be part of this great nation.  I call on all of the people of South Carolina, not just the ones with dark skin, to demand that their legislature take down that flag.  I think you'll feel much better when you do.