I have long imagined that I would wake up one morning to find that the true cause of the country’s problems has finally been found. Now – mirabile dictu! – that day has arrived.
After years – yea, decades – of searching, analyzing, agonizing, and wandering in the cultural wilderness, the precise root of America’s societal ills has been discovered. If media-coverage is a reliable gauge, we can now see that our real problem is neither terrorism, nor crime, nor bad cops, nor too-intrusive government, nor too-remote government, nor too much wealth, nor too little wealth, nor moral rot, nor too few genders, nor too many. It is neither too little discussion of race, nor too much; no, it is not even the dastardly name of the Washington Redskins. Hallelujah! – we now know that all of our problems can be traced to the Confederate battle-flag. And it must go.
The relief of finally gaining this insight into America’s true Heart of Darkness is so great that it almost masks a salient fact: i.e., that eliminating the St. Andrew’s cross will solve no actual problems. Indeed it will achieve nothing productive, except to enrich some joyful shop owners who have been riotously selling their Confederate curios since the recent uproar began. Buyers of the Rebel flag – which they think will soon be outlawed altogether – have literally been lined up around the block, evoking booze-buyouts on the eve of prohibition and runs on failing banks in the 1930s. It is a very happy time for merchants of Confederate memorabilia. (Grandma always said every cloud had a silver lining.)
This jesting about typical media hyper-reporting, however, is not meant to minimize the fact that the recent media-blitz on the Confederate flag was set off by a truly horrible crime. On June 17, a white 21-year-old named Dylann Roof entered Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and reportedly murdered nine black parishioners with a handgun. Witnesses say Roof shot and killed Pastor (and State Senator) Clementa C. Pinckney, plus eight other church members, at a Wednesday-evening Bible study that he sometimes attended. Roof knew the Rev. Pinckney personally – a fact that gave him easy access to the church premises.
On-line photographs posted by Roof before the shooting show him posing with the Confederate flag, plus flags of the racist, pre-independence government of Rhodesia and of apartheid-era South Africa. Those photos, coupled with the black shooting victims (at the country’s oldest black church), suggest that Roof’s actions might be a “hate crime,” as defined by federal law.
As racially motivated crimes rank high, nowadays, on the media’s list of sought-after stories, a great deal of coverage has been devoted to Roof, along with copious speculation that the Confederate flag influenced his criminal acts. Today’s “conventional wisdom,” which insists that the flag symbolizes only slavery and racial oppression, has legitimized a full-blown campaign to ban the flag and any other symbols of the Southern Confederacy. Incomplete teaching of history in modern schools also makes it easier to convince the public that R. E. Lee’s battle-flag is simply an anachronistic racist symbol that has no place in a sensitive, modern, multi-racial country.
At this writing, a sweeping campaign is underway to ban films, TV programs, and other symbols that feature the Confederate flag or depict the Confederacy in a favorable way. Reruns of the 1980s TV show, “The Dukes of Hazzard” – a madcap comedy featuring a pair of young fools who roar around in a souped-up Dodge sporting a Confederate flag painted on the roof – has already been dropped. Robert E. Lee’s home state of Virginia has announced that it will “phase out” license plates bearing the rebel flag, and South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley has called for removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state Capitol. Classic films like “Gone with the Wind” may eventually be banned. Indeed, most films from the era when the South and the Confederacy were still viewed favorably by Hollywood are almost certain to disappear from the libraries of video vendors and TV networks. If current trends continue, the entire cinematic representation of those times will be gone with the wind, too. They will be casualties of America’s new, frenzied retro-adventure in Nazi-style book-burning.
A dozen years ago I attended a Baptist church here in Northern Virginia whose pastor had decided that Baptist should be purged from the church’s name. He reported that young people often seemed enthusiastic about attending the church, until they heard “Baptist.” The name turned them off completely, as they associated Baptists with moral rigidity and a severe “no fun” attitude. The pastor proposed that we become a “community church” or a “Bible church,” or some other more “welcoming” title. He actually brought the matter to a congregational meeting for a vote, possibly believing that his argument would easily carry the day.
To his great surprise, however, his proposal to drop the Baptist name encountered strong congregational resistance. The issue was debated vigorously in the packed general forum Baptists favor for deciding thorny issues. Even younger members argued that the name stands for a strong and valuable presence in the community – going back long before the current era. Some older members who had grown up in that church didn’t want it renamed. And still others pointed out that Baptists had endured persecution and even death for their faith in various historical venues. They didn’t want that honorable name discarded just because a few Millennials and teeny-boppers think it might threaten smoking, drinking or fooling around. (Oh, the horror of it!)
As I was neither a long-time member of that church nor a lifelong Baptist, I didn’t feel qualified to speak to the issue in the congregational meeting. But I also didn’t approve of cavalierly tossing a name that represented a long, honorable record of service and spiritual faithfulness to the nation. Serious people had labored proudly under that name, long before our time. The hubris of the move didn’t feel (or smell) right.
My tool of choice then (as now) was to write an article for this column-space, decrying the modern penchant for trying to rewrite history by renaming things – including bridges, buildings, towns and schools which bore the names of revered historical figures. Some schools were dropping the name Washington because the Father of Our Country had owned slaves. Purging certain historical symbols from the culture was also gaining popularity. I suggested that the cross might soon be banished because some people find it “offensive.” (Evidently, I was prophetic in some of these observations.)
Seeing the way the wind was blowing, the pastor tried to adjourn the congregational meeting without a vote, declaring that the people were obviously “not ready” to decide. He meant, of course, that he sensed a vote would not go his way. But the goodly members were having none of it. They shouted down the adjournment-move, and loudly called for a vote, which was duly conducted. The proposal to lose the historic Baptist name was soundly defeated.
As for the Confederate flag... Even though I live in Robert E. Lee’s country and pass by some of his old battlefields regularly, I’m not a true southerner, born and bred. My people were from Pennsylvania. Some of them fought for the Union in the “late unpleasantness” between the states, and one spent several years in a Confederate prison camp. Thus, I have no historical-emotional tie to the Confederacy and its flag. I also detest the tendency of motorcycle gangs and other fools to wave that flag around as some kind of white supremacy symbol. Most Virginians find these hoodlums disrespectful to the memory of General Lee, who remains as close to royalty as one is likely to find in the USA. (His descendants still live in the state.)
Although I and most of my neighbors believe that slavery was a wretched system that had to go eventually, we have respect for that old flag and for the people who fought and died under it. Their cause was not slavery. Indeed, the vast majority of Confederate soldiers didn’t even own slaves. Those southern farmers and working-men fought for freedom from what they considered an overbearing, oppressive government. Like all Americans, back to our earliest days, they didn’t like being pushed around. That flag symbolized their concept of freedom and independence.
At this season of the year when we recall the founding of our country, we might give a passing thought to brave men of another time who cared enough about liberty to fight and die for it. The media gives this the horselaugh today, but most Confederates were fighting for the right to order their lives as they saw fit – not to retain a system that meant little to them. We don’t necessarily agree with their vision for the nation, but their courage and dedication deserve our respect.
I call for a truce on the Stars and Bars. Enough with the fighting, the name-calling and the ill-considered attempts to rewrite history. As General Lee famously said: “The war is over. Let us have peace.”
Our real problems lie elsewhere. We need to get serious about working on them.