The map is not the territory. The symbol is not the thing. Alfred Korzybski said so – and this is not a pipe – so don’t get confused. And the Confederate flag is just a flag. Lee surrendered at Appomattox. There is no Confederacy. The South will not rise again. That’s over. That’s just a flag. It means nothing now.
Korzybski was wrong:
On Thursday, hours after a white gunman killed nine people in a black church in Charleston, S.C., a Confederate flag continued to fly over the grounds of the state’s Capitol.
The Supreme Court ruled the same day that Texas did not violate the First Amendment by refusing to allow the flag on its license plates.
The conflict over the banner of the Confederacy has been raging for decades between those who feel it is a symbol of free speech, and others who see it as a symbol of white supremacy. But with a photo emerging of Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old suspect in the Charleston church shootings, posing in front of a car with Confederate plates, the debate has been reignited on social media and beyond about whether the flag should be displayed, and whether politicians should continue to defend the flag as a symbol of Southern heritage.
That’s Katie Rogers reporting in the New York Times on the fight about this flag:
Representative Mark Sanford of South Carolina, a Republican, and the state’s Republican governor, Nikki R. Haley, are both drawing criticism for their views on the flag. On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Mr. Sanford called the idea of removing the flag a “Pandora’s box” and a “complex issue within our state.”
Ms. Haley, who on Friday called for Mr. Roof to face the death penalty, was also facing criticism for referring to the flag as a “sensitive issue” but refusing to remove it in the past.
A Haley spokesman told ABC that use of the Confederate flag – seen flying high in the South Carolina capital while other flags flew at half-staff – could not be altered without approval from the state Legislature.
Cornell William Brooks, national president of the NAACP, said on Friday that those who said the flag was “merely a symbol of years gone by” had it all wrong. The flag, he said, is an “emblem of hate” that should be banished from public life.
“That symbol has to come down,” he said, speaking at a news conference in Charleston. “That symbol must be removed from our state Capitol.” …
Elsewhere, writers and academics found fault in the argument that the flag was meant to preserve a Southern way of life. In a post for The Atlantic titled “Take down the Confederate Flag – Now,” Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote that the argument that the flag preserves a heritage of racist behavior was what motivated Mr. Roof to attack black people.
“More than any individual actor, in recent history, Roof honored his flag in exactly the manner it always demanded – with human sacrifice,” Mr. Coates wrote.
Then there’s Edward E. Baptist, a professor at Cornell who specializes in the history of slavery, saying in a series of posts on Twitter that the flag had been used as justification for attacks on blacks since the Civil War:
In the course of Civil War, the flag became the symbol of not only slavery and treason, but the murder of black soldiers.
The stars and bars was also a symbol of terror: of the violent intimidation of African Americans who dared assert their rights.
SC’s state flag is a flag of slavery. But it is also a flag of terrorism.
There much more, and there’s this:
A post published Friday on League of the South, a niche website defined as a “neo-Confederate” group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the flag should not be taken down. Calling it “the most recognizable historic flag of the South,” the league said the Confederate flag “stands for the heroic effort our people made 150 years ago to avoid the fate were are experiencing today.”
But beyond such groups, support for the flag has been tepid. On Thursday, Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, a Republican, said that keeping the flag was a matter of “tradition.” But before the day ended, he walked those comments back.
All of this brings back memories. Graduate school in the South was confusing – maybe because they called Duke the Harvard of the South, except the campus was exceedingly ivy-covered-gothic and looked very British, except for the magnolia trees and all the sunshine, and the oppressive steamy heat. This wasn’t Cambridge, or the other Cambridge on the north edge of Boston. This was the third version, built during the Great Depression, when the butt-end of a cigarette you found in the street might be the only thing that kept you going, with the enormous profits from the tobacco industry back then. The nearby city, Durham, was gritty and poor and filled with supermarkets called Piggly-Wiggly. The locals didn’t much care for book-learning, and the highway that led south through the miles and miles of dark loblolly pine forests was part of that Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway, thought up in 1913 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy – because that war way back when had been noble and good, and the darkies had actually been happy, and the South really didn’t lose, not really. Now that stretch of road leads to Research Triangle Park, which is the Silicon Valley of the South or some such thing. That’s the New South – the ambiguous old mixed with the unsettling new, with everything a version of what it isn’t. There was always tension in the air.
Sure it was a cultural shock – imagine growing up in Pittsburgh then attending a small liberal arts college in Ohio in the last four years of the sixties, then heading off to graduate school in the South, or close enough. Durham was sort of the South. Folks there still had a problem with the Civil War. That was always the Late Unpleasantness between the States – not a civil war, really, as they had been right about states’ rights – and the North had been pushy assholes. Others called it the War of Northern Aggression. The president of the NRA has called it that – and driving down to Chapel Hill on Saturday mornings – there was a great bookstore there – along that Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway – you learned you didn’t make jokes about that war long ago.
There were also Confederate flags everywhere. You didn’t get used to it. It was like being in a time-warp, or in a foreign country with its own flag – and the odd red clay and miles and miles of dark loblolly pines, thick to the hazy horizon, just made it all the more surreal. And grocery shopping at that Piggly-Wiggly or Winn-Dixie didn’t help matters. But somehow that was the real America, and it has been for a long time.
That America came with its own mythology, that Lost Cause of the Confederacy thing. Southern nobility fought bravely and fairly, and Northern generals were crude and vile and had no sense of fair play, as seen in Sherman’s March to the Sea – and Ulysses S. Grant was a damned alcoholic too. It just wasn’t fair, and they won’t let it go. They can’t let it go. It’s who they are, and it’s no coincidence that the Tea Party crowd is heavily white and Southern, even if they long for the white-bread world of Ozzie and Harriet America in the fifties. (Ozzie and Harriett actually lived three blocks east of here, in the Hollywood they hate too.)
In 1936, with the publication of Gone with the Wind – the ultimate lost cause novel and still the most popular book in America after the Bible – the mythology went national. The 1939 movie sealed the deal, and now the Republican Party itself has become the Party of the South. That’s where almost all of their electoral votes are, and they’ve lost the last two presidential elections, badly, which might actually fine with them. It’s that noble Lost Cause thing. It’s easy to slip into thinking of yourself as a loser, but a loser who should have won, if the world were as it should be. It’s self-pity as a defense mechanism, and there’s a lot of anger involved, and quite a bit of lashing-out. This is just a slightly different lost cause than the Confederacy, one where the bad guys were FDR and Jack Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and the hippies of the sixties, not Union soldiers. Or maybe it’s not. Maybe Dylann Roof was still fighting the original war, under the proper flag.
As for the flag itself, Carlos Lozada points out that John M. Coski, the historian at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, wrote that definitive 2006 book about it – The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem – over the ongoing debate about the flag, debates in the South about whether that flag really embodies freedom, not oppression at all.
Defenders of the flag have insisted vehemently that the Confederacy did not exist to defend or preserve slavery, and they impugn the motives and intelligence of those who argue that it did. .. [Historian] James McPherson’s study of soldier motivations suggested that most Confederate soldiers did not fight consciously for the preservation of slave property. Confederate soldiers believed they were fighting, above all, to defend their states, their country, and their homes from invasion and to preserve the individual and constitutional liberty that Americans won in 1776. …
Historians and partisans in the flag debate can disagree legitimately with the logic of their argument, but they cannot deny the reality of the perception of those who suffered the consequences of invasion. If we wish to understand why many people perceive the Confederate flag as a symbol not of slavery but of liberty, we must understand that a war which “somehow” was caused by slavery (as Lincoln said in his second inaugural address) also necessarily entailed the destruction of an exercise in self-determination.
That’s the essence of the argument:
Modern neo-Confederate orthodoxy not only denies that slavery was the cause of the war but posits that the Confederacy’s reason for being was the defense of constitutional liberty against Big Government. Furthermore, according to this reasoning, the growth of an intrusive federal government in modern times can be traced directly to the defeat of the Confederacy. Anti-government ideology has combined with historical analysis and ancestor veneration to give the Confederacy and its symbols exalted status as icons of freedom.
While generations since 1865 have embellished this orthodoxy, it originated in the rhetoric of Confederate leaders seeking to justify secession and win support for their new nation.
That’s not exactly what the editors of the Richmond-based Southern Punch were saying in 1864:
“The people of the South,” says a contemporary, “are not fighting for slavery but for independence.” Let us look into this matter. It is an easy task, we think, to show up this new-fangled heresy – a heresy calculated to do us no good, for it cannot deceive foreign statesmen or peoples, nor mislead anyone here nor in Yankeeland… Our doctrine is this: WE ARE FIGHTING FOR INDEPENDENCE THAT OUR GREAT AND NECESSARY DOMESTIC INSTITUTION OF SLAVERY SHALL BE PRESERVED, and for the preservation of other institutions of which slavery is the groundwork.
This was an argument for economic freedom from big government, where the right to own slaves was only one element, and Coski notes that it caught on:
After the war, a few ex-Confederates expressed similar disgust with the insistence that defense of slavery had not been the cause of the war. Confederate veteran Ed Baxter unashamedly told a reunion in 1889: “In a word, the South determined to fight for her property right in slaves; and in order to do so, it was necessary for her resist the change which the Abolitionists proposed to make under the Constitution of the United States as construed by them… Upon this issue the South went to war, I repeat that the people of the South had the right to fight for their property”. … Famed Confederate partisan leader Colonel John S. Mosby was equally forthright. “I’ve always understood that we went to war on account of the thing we quarreled with the North about,” he wrote a former comrade in 1894. “I’ve never heard of any other cause than slavery.”
Mosby, [South Carolina politician Robert Barnwell] Rhett, [Confederate President] Davis, [Vice President Alexander] Stephens, and other Confederates had no difficulty conceding what their descendants go to enormous lengths to deny: that the raison d’être of the Confederacy was the defense of slavery. It follows that, as the paramount symbol of the Confederate nation and as the flag of the armies that kept the nation alive, the St. Andrew’s cross is inherently associated with slavery. This conclusion is valid whether or not secession was constitutional. It is valid whether or not most southern soldiers consciously fought to preserve slavery. It is valid even though racism and segregation prevailed among nineteenth-century white northerners.
But the argument has always been that this is simply too narrow a view of things:
Modern Americans looking for this kind of definitive judgment go wrong, however, in concluding further that the St. Andrew’s cross was only a symbol of slavery. Historians emphasize that defense of African-American slavery was inextricably intertwined with white southerners’ defense of their own constitutional liberties and with nearly every other facet of southern life. Descendants of Confederates are not wrong to believe that the flag symbolized defense of constitutional liberties and resistance to invasion by military forces determined to crush an experiment in nationhood. But they are wrong to believe that this interpretation of the flag’s meaning can be separated from the defense of slavery. They need only read the words of their Confederate ancestors to find abundant and irrefutable evidence.
The flag cannot be made “clean” now, as it was never clean in the first place, so we get things like this:
The South Carolina governor infamously called a non-issue during her re-election campaign last year because she “had not had one conversation with a single CEO about the Confederate flag” during calls with business leaders. She also rejected at least one previous call by the NAACP to remove the flag.
But during an interview on Friday with Reuters, Haley seemed open to re-examining the deal that moved the Confederate flag to its current spot.
“If they want to have this conversation again, they will,” Haley said of the state legislature. “They had it 15 years ago. They came to [a] consensus, that’s where it was. I think they’ll have another conversation, and we’ll bring people together.”
Many people blasted the South Carolina senator and Republican presidential candidate when he told CNN on Friday morning that the flag is “part of who we are” in his state. But he also said he was open to changing the capitol’s awkward compromise on the flag.
“It’s time for people in South Carolina to revisit that decision,” he said. “It would be fine with me.”
During the 2012 GOP primaries, Graham called the use of the flag at the Confederate War Memorial a “bipartisan” solution and advised candidates to avoid the topic altogether. “Any [candidate] who brought that up wouldn’t be doing themselves any favors,” he said to The Hill.
THE NATIONAL REVIEW
Writers at the conservative magazine – which firmly backed the South’s mantra of states’ rights during the civil rights era – debated the use of the flag on Thursday. Executive Editor Reihan Salam came out firmly against it:
“It could be that the Confederate battle flag has come to mean something entirely different in 2015 than it did in the mid-1950s, when it was closely tied to resistance to federal desegregation efforts. But is its value such that we ought to continue giving it quasi-official status, even when doing so alienates the descendants of enslaved southerners, who have just as much claim to deciding which symbols ought to represent southern heritage as the descendants of Confederate veterans? I don’t believe so.”
Others were more skeptical: Ian Tuttle argued that “objections to [the flag] are not raised in good faith” but rather for political gain. But even he then acknowledged that the flag can cause serious harm and offense.
“One can recognize, understand, and sympathize with the revulsion symbols of the Confederacy occasion in some quarters, particularly among black Americans – and a compromise should be possible. If reducing the visibility of these symbols would offer relief to those genuinely hurt, and would remove an object of contention keeping persons of different races from cooperating to advance true racial justice, that is something supporters of Confederate symbols should be able to do.”
Is that so? David Remnick has been editor of The New Yorker since 1998 and adds some perspective:
Between 1882 and 1968, the year Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, three thousand four hundred and forty-six black men, women, and children were lynched in this country – a practice so vicious and frequent that Mark Twain was moved, in 1901, to write an essay called “The United States of Lyncherdom.” (Twain shelved the essay and plans for a full-length book on lynching because, he told his publisher, if he went forward, “I shouldn’t have even half a friend left down South.”) These thousands of murders, as studied by the Tuskegee Institute and others, were a means of enforcing white supremacy in the political and economic marketplaces; they served to terrorize black men who might dare to sleep, or even talk, with white women, and to silence black children, like Emmett Till, who were deemed “insolent.”
That legacy of extreme cruelty and unpunished murder as a means of exerting political and physical control of African-Americans cannot be far from our minds right now. Nine people were shot dead in a church in Charleston. How is it possible, while reading about the alleged killer, Dylann Storm Roof, posing darkly in a picture on his Facebook page, the flags of racist Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa sewn to his jacket, not to think that we have witnessed a lynching? Roof, it is true, did not brandish a noose, nor was he backed by a howling mob of Klansmen, as was so often the case in the heyday of American lynching. Subsequent investigation may put at least some of the blame for his actions on one form of derangement or another. And yet the apparent sense of calculation and planning, what a witness reportedly said was the shooter’s statement of purpose in the Emanuel AME Church as he took up his gun – “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country” – echoed some of the very same racial anxieties, resentments, and hatreds that fueled the lynchings of an earlier time.
And then there’s South Carolina:
Seven years ago, as Obama was campaigning in South Carolina, the Times columnist Bob Herbert visited the state, encountering the Confederate flag flying on the grounds of the State Capitol building and, nearby, a statue of Benjamin (Pitchfork Ben) Tillman, a Reconstruction-era governor and senator, who defended white supremacy and the lynching of African-Americans, saying, “We disenfranchised as many as we could.”
“We of the South have never recognized the right of the Negro to govern white men, and we never will,” Tillman said, from the floor of the U.S. Senate. “We have never believed him to be the equal of the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him.”
The extent to which Roof was aware of the historical dimensions of his hideous act is not yet known; he is still a suspect, and we are just beginning to learn more about him. But no killer could have selected a crime scene more sacred. The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church was built to be the heart of the black community in Charleston, in the early nineteenth century, as black men and women sought to form a spiritual and political refuge divorced from the oppressive white institutions all around them.
But forget history:
No small part of our outrage and grief – particularly the outrage and grief of African-Americans – is the way the Charleston murders are part of a larger picture of American life, in which black men and women, going about their day-to-day lives, have so little confidence in their own safety. One appalling event after another reinforces the sense that the country’s political and law-enforcement institutions do not extend themselves as completely or as fairly as they do for whites. In Charleston, the killer seemed intent on maximizing both the bloodshed and the symbolism that is attached to the act; the murder took place in a spiritual refuge, supposedly the safest of places. It was as if the killer wanted to underline the vulnerability of his victims, to emphasize their exposure and the racist nature of this act of terror.
And this created a problem for Obama:
Watching Obama deliver his statement Thursday about the Charleston murders, you couldn’t help but sense how submerged his emotions were, how, yet again, he was forced to slow down his own speech, careful not to utter a phrase that would, God forbid, lead him to lose his equanimity. I thought of that sentence of James Baldwin’s: “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in rage almost all of the time.” Obama’s statement also made me think of “Between the World and Me,” an extraordinary forthcoming book by Ta-Nehisi Coates, in which he writes an impassioned letter to his teen-age son – a letter both loving and full of a parent’s dread – counselling him on the history of American violence against the black body, the young African-American’s extreme vulnerability to wrongful arrest, police violence, and disproportionate incarceration.
Obama never affords himself the kind of raw honesty that you hear in the writings of Baldwin and Coates… Obama has a different job; he has different parameters. But, for all of his Presidential restraint, you could read the sadness, the anger, and the caution in his face as he stood at the podium; you could hear it in what he had to say. “I’ve had to make statements like this too many times,” he said. It was as if he could barely believe that he yet again had to find some language to do justice to this kind of violence. It seemed that he went further than usual. Above all, he insisted that mass killings, like the one in Charleston, are, in no small measure, political. This is the crucial point. These murders were not random or merely tragic; they were pointedly racist; they were political. Obama made it clear that the cynical actions of so many politicians – their refusal to cross the NRA and enact strict gun laws, their unwillingness to combat racism in any way that puts votes at risk – have bloody consequences.
This is difficult stuff:
Obama hates to talk about this. He allows himself so little latitude. Maybe that will change when he is an ex-President focused on his memoirs. As a very young man he wrote a book about becoming, about identity, about finding community in a black church, about finding a sense of home – in his case, on the South Side of Chicago, with a young lawyer named Michelle Robinson. It will be beyond interesting to see what he’s willing to tell us – tell us with real freedom – about being the focus of so much hope, but also the subject of so much ambient and organized racial anger: the birther movement, the death threats, the voter-suppression attempts, the articles, books, and films that portray him as everything from an unreconstructed, drug-addled campus radical to a Kenyan post-colonial socialist. This has been the Age of Obama, but we have learned over and over that this has hardly meant the end of racism in America. Not remotely. Dylann Roof, tragically, seems to be yet another terrible reminder of that.
Nearly all of South Carolina was in mourning Thursday. Flags were at half-mast. Except the Confederate flag, of course, which flew high outside the building where Tillman still stands and the laws of the state are written.
Sometimes the map is the territory.