11 August 2015
Confederate Flag: Imprudent to Take It Down
July 21, 2015
On July 10th, following the Charleston church shootings, South Carolina took down the confederate battle flag. Barack Obama and the rest of the American left demanded its removal as did establishment Republicans such as Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, and Mitch McConnell.
South Carolina’s removal followed a mad rush to dump the flag. Walmart led the charge when it stopped selling items with it. Walmart was followed by Apple, Amazon.com, Google, Kmart, and Target who did the same. TV Land stopped showing reruns of the “Dukes of Hazard” because the car featured on it had a confederate flag on its roof. Corporate America had decided the flag was like used toilet paper.
This is yet another step toward cleansing the country of symbols of the confederacy. It is only a matter of time before military bases named after confederate military leaders (Fort Hood and Fort Brag) are renamed and statutes of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson in Richmond are removed.
There is the problem of inconsistency. No one wants to ban the sale of the Chinese flag. This is odd given that China’s flag flew during Mao’s dictatorship. His government starved and killed more than 60 million people as part of his attempt to shoehorn China into communism. A similar thing is true of current flags, t-shirts, and other displays of the Soviet flag despite its having flown during Joseph Stalin’s regime that starved and killed 20 million people. Few even seem to want to eliminate President Andrew “Indian Killer” Jackson from the twenty-dollar bill, despite his aggressive military campaigns against Native Americans. Apparently, contemporary Native Americans will have to rest content with changing the name of the Washington Redskins.
Leaving inconsistency aside, the argument for removing the flag is unclear. It appears to be that governments and people should not cause offense to others when it is unreasonable to do so. For example, posters and t-shirts with the swastika, Princess Diana’s head superimposed on picture of a porn star performing oral sex (an Irish group’s taunt of England), “God hates fags” posters (Westboro Baptist Church), and pictures of partially dismembered fetuses (assorted pro-life groups) might violate this principal. The issue is whether flying the confederate flag is similarly offensive.
It is not clear that flags and other symbols have a meaning in the sense that they express declarative sentences. Consider, for example, Israel’s flag. What does it mean? Israel exists. Israel is strong. Israel is a Jewish state. It is not clear which of these sentences, if any, are expressed by the flag. This is not true for symbol that focuses on an idea (for example, the peace symbol), but the confederate battle flag is not a symbol that focuses on an idea.
Rather than express declarative sentences, flags and similar symbols often have emotional content. Consider, for example, the emotions Marines feel when they fly the Marine Corps flag or see their grown children in Marine Corps uniforms. The problem here is that the emotional content of the confederate battle flag is different for different people and it is unclear whether, in this context, the emotions of one group are more reasonable or virtuous than another.
Many Southern whites see the battle flag as symbolizing their ancestry and history. This is similar to a family coat of arms. The emotions they feel are those they associate with a band of brothers fighting against impossible odds. They’re offended when people want to take it down much as former Marines would be incensed were peaceniks to burn the Marine Corps flag. To many blacks, leftists, and establishment Republicans, the confederate battle flag is associated with bigotry and race-hatred that has its roots in American slavery and the antebellum Southern way of life.
In general, there is no right against being offended or even unreasonably offended. People have a right to do what they want with their property and this right includes using it to express ideas. A pro-lifer’s ownership of her t-shirt includes the option to put a graphic pictures of fetuses on it even if it makes people uncomfortable. Even if there were a right against being offended, it wouldn’t solve the issue here as you have one group who will be offended if you leave the flag up and another that will be offended if you take it down.
Leaving rights aside, I think it is probably a bad idea to take down the flag. Nations and other political entities are often specific peoples with shared histories. Consider, for example, England, Germany, and Japan. I don't think it is a good idea to whitewash a people’s history any more than it is a good idea to airbrush out relatives from family photos. Knowing one’s family history, whether good or bad, is important for identity and a shared identity is often a good thing. At the very least, we should have good evidence that airbrushing out the Confederacy is good for people or morally required before we do so. I don’t see any evidence that this is the case.
More importantly, the movement to remove controversial historical figures and symbols will likely spin out of control. Not only because it has no natural stopping point, but also because once easily offended groups smell blood in the water, they’ll go on a feeding frenzy. Today the flag is lowered from South Carolina. Tomorrow statutes to confederate generals (for example, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson) and money with a murderous leader (for example, Andrew Jackson) are removed. Later, we’ll remove still more references to other historical leaders or events that retrospectively offend people. Perhaps the right will get in on the act and target horrible Presidents (for example, Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt) and stupid wars (for example, World War I). No thoughtful adult trusts the Barack Obama, Chuck Schumer, the NAACP, and their ilk to know when to stop dismantling historical symbols. Better to keep our connection to the past in place and be honest about where we came from.