Thursday, June 25, 2015

Flag Issue Ambivalence

I'm staunchly against the culture of offense which drives so much American opinion and policy these days. Having managed a very large online community, I learned that offense is 1.viral (if one person vents about what offends them, you can count on an epidemic of outrage in short order), and 2. unquenchable (once offense is expressed - and especially once it's coddled - there's no end to it; you can massage every wound, pad every sharp edge, but umbrage will continue to madly accelerate. Encouraged to ceaselessly monitor her comfort level, a princess will always detect a pea).

Trying to soothe everyone creates a dystopia. Academia is experiencing this as we speak. We just can't go that route. People living in a plurality, as we do, must restrain their offense-taking. Every minority deserves equal freedom and rights, but not the further step of insulation from offense. Pluralism is inherently frictional. We don't want to open that worm can. It bears repeating: offense is unquenchable.

That said, the confederate flag, with its clear racist association, being hoisted by governments at this late date seems nearly unbelievable. It's an extreme case, akin to the American Nazi Party marching in Skokie (home to many Holocaust survivors). On the other hand, I supported that march.

I also acknowledge that the Confederate flag is a symbol of Southern heritage, which certainly includes much more than the horrendous treatment of African-Americans. We didn't force the Germans to reject all German culture after the Nazi defeat; everyone deserves to celebrate their heritage, even if it means looking past dark parts - as it does for every one of us**. If we were to shun the heritage of every culture which has ever committed atrocities, we'd be a blanked-out world devoid of all culture or tradition.

That said, Germany doesn't permit the flying of the Nazi flag. Germany and German heritage are fine. Nazi heritage...not so much.

The analogy isn't perfect. And while the frictions of pluralism may be forgivable, organized hatred and its symbols feel like another thing. But is the Confederate flag truly that? America, too, has done despicable things, persecuting and killing a great many innocent people. Survivors and descendants may feel traumatized by our continued existence. Does this make the stars and stripes a symbol of hate? How virtuous must a culture be to be entitled to celebrate itself? And who decides that?

Back and forth, the matter keeps ping-ponging inside me. The only thing I'm sure of is that, like many other issues most people consider profoundly simple, it's deeply complicated. But, in any case, it certainly doesn't revolve around any one instance of horrible violent persecution.


** - Even the atrocity of slavery is a stain shared by all Americans - including African-Americans. Being American means taking on the baggage as well as the privileges. You and I may not have tortured prisoners in Abu Ghraib, and our families may not have owned slaves, but if the country isn't us, then what, exactly, is it?

5 comments:

Richard Stanford said...

I don't see the flag being flown by governments as being akin to the Nazi party march (the right to do I also support, btw, probably for much the same reasons that you do), simply because that was done by a private party. When the state allows private parties to share unpopular messages, that fosters freedom. When the state condones that message and starts repeating it itself, that limits freedom by stating, if subtly, that it those citizens who are affected are unlikely to receive proper equal treatment under the law.

For another, possibly silly perspective, I wonder how many people who are staunch supporters of state supported Confederate symbols would be happy seeing the Union Jack hoisted over the White House along with the Stars and Stripes?

Jim Leff said...

Re: private/government distinction, my comparison to Nazis in Skokie was for one single purpose: to reflect the rather extreme anachronism and in-your-face harshness of the flag's continued presentation, given what it's come to represent for many people. That comparison was purely aesthetic.

You're skating past the ice I'm trying to spotlight by using the very carefully-chosen term "unpopular". The sticky wickets you're trying to squirm away from via that word choice need to be considered unblinkingly, IMO.

Heritage is something most of us agree should be celebrated. Every heritage is tarnished, because atrocity and persecution are universally human. If you equate southern heritage with slavery, then perhaps its symbols should be expunged. But is that a fair equation? If we equate every culture's heritage with its worst ideals and behaviors, what heritage would be unstained? What flag would NOT be a symbol of atrocity and persecution?

The argument about about state condoning hateful symbols presupposes that the Confederacy was (and its flag represents) nothing more than the atrocities of slavery. I understand why this conclusion rings true for northerners and for African-Americans and for everyone caught up in the politics of offense. But I'm cursed with empathy, and can see it from the standpoint of a southerner who's proud of his/her heritage, even if not with every aspect of it. Who sees the flag as a broader thing. Shoot, *I* love an awful lot about southern heritage, too, and I'm not even from there!

Why can't Southerners (and their governing bodies) respect and celebrate their heritage without this one symbol, which has become so highly charged? Well, I myself pointed to the German policy of treasuring heritage without permitting display of this charged symbol of this period dominated by atrocity. That seems an effective compromise. And maybe it should be thus. But, again, the comparison doesn't fully apply. And the essential question is: how virtuous must a culture be to be entitled to celebrate itself? And who decides that?

bobjbkln said...

The Confederate flag is NOT a symbol of Southern heritage as you keep repeating while omitting one word. At best, it is the symbol of WHITE Southern heritage. Black Southerners have different symbols which are not flying next to the Confederate Battle Flag.

Jim Leff said...

Bob, your comments are always appreciated. But all-caps don't make you righter.

You might also argue that all American symbols prior to 1919 (19th amendment) were not actually American symbols...they were MALE American symbols. Persecution, bigotry, and exclusion is part and parcel of every heritage there is. Outside of a Bennetton commercial, every heritage is somebody's heritage at the exclusion of someone else. That's the way it is in the real world, if not in the movies in our heads. And yet, heritages exist and they mean something for people, rotten though parts of them always are.

I repeat the question (with the recognition that this, is, indeed an extreme case; I did compare it to the Nazis in Skokie): how virtuous must a culture be to be entitled to celebrate itself? And who decides that? If we rejigger to respect only fully inclusionary symbols of fully inclusionary heritages, and indignantly expunge all others, then there will be no heritages left to celebrate.

Muscle_Burst said...

I don't see the confederate flag as a symbol of slavery. I read recently in a book that the Union's stance against slavery was a political move to stop foreign interests from backing the Confederacy. More importantly slavery continued in the north for quite a while after the civil war ended. Note, I haven't spent a lot of time verifying this information.

Btw, you type very well Jim Leff.

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