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Scapegoating Symbols Will Not Resolve Racial America

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Longtime readers of Bearing Drift know that I have neither love nor disdain for the Confederate Flag.  I am the very definition of ambivalent, and frankly don’t enjoy discussing the history of a war many folks are still fighting.

For many years, Bearing Drift’s editors have campaigned (without much success) for the abolishment of Lee-Jackson Day as a Virginia holiday [2], not because of any antipathy for the two men themselves, but because the holiday was misappropriated by the Jim Crow era and used as a capstone for their magnum opus in racial segregation — certainly not in honor of the memories of either.

I’ve [3] opined [4] in the past [5] my reservations regarding the Confederate battle flag, and as to why [6] Lee and Jackson get the honorable mention, but not Longstreet [7].  Longstreet, of course, threw himself mightily into the world of Reconstruction, moving to New Orleans and converting to Catholicism before he died.  More odious to Southerners, he converted to the Republican Party as well… and thus after Lee’s death, second-tier men such as Jubal Early tore down the great man’s reputation and strategic brilliance, a vision of modern defensive warfare that was ultimately validated in the trenches of the Somme in the First World War.

Fast forward to today, where no crisis should go to waste.

The Confederate flag flying in Charleston is the new target of folks who want to show they care.  Whether they actually gave a damn or not before the mass shooting (and yes, racism was the motivation) at the AME church is a subject for debate itself, but there’s a lot of people — primarily white — who want to go through any lengths to show they are not racist by doing something, anything, everything to whitewash America’s history of its trigger warnings.

Last Friday, I went on Coy Barefoot’s show to talk about the tragedy in Charleston, and he asked me point blank whether the Confederate flag ought to be removed from the state capitol.

Admittedly, I hesitated.

No, I didn’t hesitate because some old Rebel in my conscience jumped up like Yosemite Sam to defend my racist heritage.  Nor was there something in the back of my head that wanted to make excuses on behalf of the South.  Nor did the historian in the back of my head bristle at the idea of tearing down history.

What caught me was the scapegoating, and two polar extreme responses, neither of with which I agree.

What are these extremes?  One side makes the case for tearing down all symbols in an effort to demonstrate we care; the other is that lukewarm acceptance (read: indifference) that Martin Luther King Jr. railed against in Letters From a Birmingham Jail.

If we settle for tearing down the symbols, we are admissibly leaving the culture that underlies these symbols intact.  It is the prejudicial effect of holding a candlelight vigil, casting stones on a scapegoat… then moving right along.  We feel better on some level, but the reality remains.

If this the principal thought one walks away with in cases such as Ferguson, Baltimore, and now Charleston — we show we care then move along with life — then I humbly submit that you have missed the point.  Casting aspersions on symbols that have multiple meanings and demanding the scapegoat to show We Care (TM) is a cowards way out.  Quarters tossed at the homeless man, and evidence of a more deeply seated paternalism that deals with problems as they arise or via government program, but never cares enough to pull a man up themselves.

Truth be told, this is the path of most of the political left in America.  It is that impulse to show that we care enough to do something for a moment, but never enough to give up the privilege our institutions, bureaucracy, and government enables.  When folks talk about welfare and public assistance destroying communities, this is what we are talking about.   Just enough to keep noses above water; never enough to give someone a chance.

The alternative is the path of the political right, the “lukewarm acceptance” where conservatives tend to politely nod, but do very little about fixing the culture.  It is in this environment where the line “power is not given, it is taken” comes from the civil rights movement’s leading statesmen, because underneath it all is a polite refusal to actively discuss or grapple with the cultural intolerances that undergird today’s cultural norms.

* * *

Pop quiz: what was the flag of Nelson Mandela?

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When Mandela passed away, I could not help but remark on the passing of a statesman and legend.

People severely underestimate what Mandela faced, what he could have been otherwise had Mandela chosen to be violent, and the great man of peace he didn’t merely become — but ultimately proved to be.  It was not a foregone conclusion that South Africa would transition peacefully from apartheid state to parliamentary democracy.  The call for “an Israel for the Boers” was real, the military firmly in the hands of the white Afrikaaner minority (25% of the population), and world opinion be damned — the Boers were split on the issue of preserving their land and culture.

There was a reason why de Klerk and Mandela were recognized as peacemakers.

Yet when Mandela finally died and I remarked on his legacy, I was met with visceral opposition.  Mandela, did we not know, was a communist.  Winnie Mandela was the mother of necklacing (a term for placing a tire around one’s head, pouring gasoline over the body, and striking a match).  The ANC was destroying South Africa as a regional economic power.  How could one possibly praise such a man as Nelson Mandela?

People forget that Mandela was under tremendous pressure from the ANC itself to destroy every vestige of the old regime.  The old flag?  Ban it.  Their sports?  Ban them.  Team names?  Change them.  Farms?  Confiscate them.  Wealth?  Redistribute it.  Rule of law?  Abrogate it.

Mandela did none of these things.  After his death, much of this began to wear away, but Mandela’s legacy remains in South Africa — even to the point of amending the national anthem Nkosi Sekelele with the old Afrikaaner national anthem Die Stem.  Five different languages grace the South African national anthem.  Pardon the copy and paste job from Wikipedia:

Language Lyrics English translation
Xhosa [9] Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika
Maluphakanyisw’ uphondo lwayo,
God bless Africa
Let its (Africa’s) horn be raised,
Zulu [10] Yizwa imithandazo yethu,
Nkosi sikelela, thina lusapho lwayo.
Listen also to our prayers,
Lord bless us, we are the family of it (Africa).
Sesotho [11] Morena boloka setjhaba sa heso,
O fedise dintwa le matshwenyeho,
O se boloke, O se boloke setjhaba sa heso,
Setjhaba sa, South Afrika, South Afrika .
Lord bless our nation,
Stop wars and sufferings,
Save it, save our nation,
The nation of South Africa, South Africa.
Afrikaans [12] Uit die blou van onse hemel,
Uit die diepte van ons see,
Oor ons ewige gebergtes,
Waar die kranse antwoord gee,
From of the blue of our skies,
From the depth of our sea,
Over everlasting mountains,
Where the cliffs give answer,
English [13]
Sounds the call to come together,
And united we shall stand,
Let us live and strive for freedom
In South Africa our land.

Noble, is it not?  I love this and everything it represents.

In time, the South African flag was replaced with the modern flag we recognize today.  Yes, some Boers misappropriate the South African flag as a symbol of their resistance to the new order, but Mandela refused to make the mistake of confusing banning symbols with changing culture.

Of course, some asshole in South Carolina put it on his jacket.

* * *

Sadly (and I say this because I lament the loss of long-form content via blogs and newsprint) these thoughts were regulated to Facebook, but Kevin Gusman makes an excellent point here [14]:

When I was in graduate school at UVA in 1992-99, I served for a semester as Teaching Assistant to Prof. Julian Bond in his course “The Civil Rights Movement.” One required element of the course was that each student write a term paper. One of my students, a black woman from the South, had an aunt, also a black woman from the South, whose experience was the centerpiece of the student’s term paper. The aunt had developed appendicitis in a southern city. Driven by the student’s grandfather to the nearest hospital, she was turned away with the explanation that, “We don’t treat niggers.” By the time she was driven to the nearest hospital that would treat African-Americans, the aunt died.

When several southern states put that Confederate emblem up over their state capitols and in their state flags in the 1950s, that was the system they were saying they intended to defend. That Confederate flag isn’t just an emblem of Confederate military valor, it is also redolent of racial oppression. That oppression was thorough, and it lasted for five generations after slavery ended in 1865. When black Americans say they don’t want it displayed on public property, and that they find it offensive on private property, that’s what they mean. I think that Christian people, in particular, should think about this.

Well stated; painfully read.

The flip side of this?  The culture was still there before the 1950s.  Yet take down the symbols… and the culture will still remain.

 * * *

Arguments over the value of symbol and symbolic values are human ones.  In times of crisis, it’s very easy to resort to our more tribalistic natures.  We see it in Syria and Iraq in the wake of the premature American withdrawal from the region, we see it in the rise of the Islamic State.  We see it in South Africa and Rhodesia cum Zimbabwe, we see it in Lebanon and the Ukraine.

…sometimes we see it here in America, whether its in our inner cities or along our borders.

I have no clear answers.  Education used to be thought to be an answer, but as God gave each of us different aptitudes, education creates inequalities of its own.  Far wiser, in this instance to cite a better source for understanding — that of empathy:

When exactly did the desire to be offended overwhelm the desire to be informed?

That sentiment comes from none other than Kenney the Younger [15].  Well stated — and the precise problem we’re facing in a world obsessed with headlines and largely doing their thinking either by 140 characters or less or while watching comedians turned into social commentators… or at least, the ones the prudes of the left find amusing.

It’s always going to be easier to scapegoat problems rather than tackle them head on.  Blaming events such as Charleston or Baltimore or Ferguson (or Virginia Tech or Sandy Hook) on instances of mental illness, or racism, or gun violence, or flags is well-intentioned but ill-informed.

Rather, it is all of these things and a great many more.  There is no government program in the world that will fix it.  No gun ban.  No tearing down of symbols or flags.  No candlelight vigil.  No pithy comment on Facebook or Twitter.  It is a classic case of gang stalking and a social phenomena known as mobbing — instinctual to be sure, and something that must be conquered culturally, not imposed by government or ignored through inertia.

This is a problem of culture and education.  Until we seek to understand rather than vilify, expect more of the same.

UPDATE:  So the e-mails and comments have already started.  Not surprising, given the feelings that surround this.  Let’s be honest — the reason why you’re going to see so few public comments on this?  Is because no one wants to be misunderstood as something they are not.  Such are the times.

One salient point that deserves to be mentioned in all of this, and there is an element of truth in the argument.  There is nothing that the Confederate flag stood for in 1862 that Old Glory didn’t stand for in 1776.  Or the Union Jack didn’t stand for in 1792.  Or the French flag didn’t stand for in 1792.  Or the Brazilian flag didn’t stand for in 1870.

Virginia’s state flag has seen the best and worst of times as well.  The same flag of Thomas Jefferson was the same flag that flew over the secessionist Virginia Capitol in 1863.  The same flag gave us Jim Crow and Massive Resistance.  Yet it was also the same flag that gave us the United States Constitution, the Statute for Religious Freedom, and built the Digital Dominion.

Old Glory has a tattered past.  So does the Union Jack.  One might argue that both flags absolved themselves of their past by wading through Confederate blood to end slavery.


Then again, there are others that would argue that such a flag is marred by Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a long tradition of segregation and racial quotas, a wage slavery system that perpetuates its problems today, the Pax Americana and the post-colonial era, violence in Syria and Iraq and Lebanon and the Ukraine and Afghanistan, etc.

After all, just after ending slavery, this is the same Grand Army of the Republic that turned west and slaughtered Native Americans, forcing them into squalid reservations and exposing them to the realities of modern society.

Tu quoque?  Yes… yes it is.  But it does serve to provide in relief that (1) these symbols represent a broad spectrum of values, and (2) that even if the symbols are removed from the public square, the culture behind them still exists in all its virtue and vice.

Worse, some folks might mistake the removal of symbols as the end of the conversation.  Instead, such symbols ought to be the starting point for conversation and understanding.

In any event, these are complicated emotions and feelings that are not academic considerations.  Not altogether easily expressed in a column.