Ever since I was old enough to understand what it meant, seeing the Confederate battle flag on display has made me squirm—and the fact that it continues to fly over state houses in the Deep South makes me genuinely angry. That said, I’m also not fond of “debates” driven by self-righteousness, of which vast amounts have been evident on both sides of this particular fence. Nor do I usually think it wise to take action on anything in the heat of the moment, which is, needless to say, what’s happening right now.
But it’s also true that America is a country in which things tend to get done either in the midst of a crisis or (more often) not at all. And in a sense, what we’re really debating is the wisdom of the post-Reconstruction policy of temporarily tolerating institutionalized racism in the Deep South in the hope of healing the hideous wounds of civil war.
I can’t help but wonder how far Abraham Lincoln would have gone in that direction had he lived. He was, after all, a pragmatist who believed in both the morality and the utility of magnanimity. Magnanimity is incompatible with the all-or-nothing mentality of the ideologue, and Lincoln was anything but that. Yet he truly hated slavery, and it’s hard to suppose that he would have had much patience with the latter-day argument that the Confederate flag can rightly be understood as a symbol of anything other than that monstrous evil.
To be sure, there are serious-minded people who believe that its symbolic value can under certain circumstances be benign, and others who simply don’t know enough about American history to understand what it means to a black person to see that flag flying over a government building one hundred and fifty years after Appomattox. Still, I think we all know in our hearts what at least some of those who continue to fly it today really have in mind. Certainly Dylann Roof was in no doubt about it.
In any case, such debates are academic. Whether or not it was at one time wise for the federal government to turn a blind eye to southern racism in the hope of serving a greater good—and hindsight, as they say, is always 20/20—the moral statute of limitations for that policy has long since run out. That’s why I believe that the Confederate battle flag and all its prideful variants should now be lowered forevermore.
Will that put an end to racism? Of course not. Nor will it stem the rising tide of self-righteousness that is increasingly driving this debate. (I wrote this at the peak of the controversy.) No conversion, after all, is complete enough to suit an ideologue. Even if you kill yourself out of self-loathing, he’ll spit on your grave. But that’s no reason not to do the right thing, and those who still believe in the possibility of good will should be no less willing to trust the sincerity of Nikki Haley, the Republican governor of South Carolina, who tweeted yesterday:
July 4th is just around the corner. It will be fitting that our state Capitol will soon fly the flags of our country & state, and no others.
I couldn’t agree more.
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Newsreel footage of the government-sponsored reunion of Civil War veterans held in Gettysburg in 1938, the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. The last surviving veteran of the Civil War died in 1956:
Hearst Metrotone News covers Marian Anderson’s performance at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939. She is accompanied by Kosti Vehanen: