In the wake of the Charleston church massacre, many complained that the national conversation got side-tracked into a debate over a mere historical artifact — the Confederate Flag — when it should have focused on the scourge of gun violence in America.
There’s no denying that the proliferation of guns is an enduring problem in America or that, in this time of unreason, the politics around “gun rights” are as unreasonable as any.
But it would be a mistake to regard the argument over the Confederate (Battle) Flag as a distraction from America’s real problems. Indeed, that argument provides one apt avenue into the heart of the national crisis that holds the United States in its grip. For the Confederate Flag represents a “spirit” (or force) that has endured in the American political culture, and has returned in our times to inflict still more damage.
The history of its uses shows that flag stands for the Confederacy formed by the secession of the slave states of the Deep South. It also stands for the emergence and defense of the Jim Crow power structure that got established in the South for the century after the Civil War. And finally, that flag has reappeared as a symbol in American politics, just as that same spirit has taken over today’s Republican Party with its base in the South.
Yes, it is the same spirit. And there’s more to it than the obvious-the revival of the notion that the states can “nullify” the authority of federal law, the recurrence of talk of secession, and the contempt with which America’s first black president is treated.
In an earlier piece — “The Spirit that Drove Us to Civil War is Back” – I laid out some striking parallels between the eras. Among these parallels:
• In both cases, we see an elite insisting on their “liberty,” by which they mean the freedom to dominate.
• In both cases, the use of the structures of American democracy was combined with a contempt for the democratic values that inspired our founders.
• In both cases, the idea of compromise became a dirty word, as the inflamed insistence on getting everything one’s own way took hold of the inflamed side.
• In both cases, the powerful elite in the grip of that destructive force refused to accept that in a democracy sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, and sometimes you have to accept being governed by a duly-elected president you don’t like.
There’s another thing this spirit has shown in both eras: lying utterly about its nature and its purpose. Such false posturing has accompanied this spirit at every stage. And these lies have sickened American politics.
The South went to war over slavery, but from the end of the war onward it pretended to have nobler purposes. For generations, it misrepresented the history, and enforced that misrepresentation as part of its strategy for political power.
Tthe recent argument over the Confederate Battle Flag served the purpose of helping bring this history of hypocrisy and pretense into the national consciousness. At least some Americans learned about what the states of the Confederacy declared as their reasons for seceding, and fighting the war that secession led to. And they learned how the revival of that flag, and its inclusion on state flags, expressed a defiant determination – as the cause of civil rights advanced — to maintain segregation, i.e. the subjugation by terror of blacks into second-class citizenship.
It became a little harder for the “Heritage not Hate” crowd to deny that one really major part of their “Heritage” has been about racial bigotry and oppression .
Showing people this pattern of lying and hypocrisy to be found in any part of the picture of this spirit makes them readier to see it in the other parts. For example, the fundamental fraud at the heart of today’s Republican Party:
• It pretends to be conservative, but systematically tramples on our traditions – on the rule of law, on the filibuster, on showing respect for the president, on accepting the outcome of elections – as no real conservatives would
• It pretends to be patriotic, but systematically injures the nation – crippling the people’s government with its obstructionism even at a time of national crisis, blackmailing with threats to drive the nation into default if it doesn’t get its way – as no real patriot would.
• It pretends to be the defender of Christian values, but behaves just the opposite of the Sermon on the Mount-showing hatred for enemies, and doing unto others far worse than they would ever accept for themselves.
This fraudulence is of vital importance for Americans to see, and the argument over that Confederate flag helps begin the exposure of this dark reality. Americans need to understand WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST. Because this time, it is essential that this spirit be thoroughly defeated.
We think of the North as having won the Civil War. Certainly, the South as a region and as a people lost, for it was devastated. And it is true that the Union was preserved, so that was a measure of victory. But the spirit that animated the South and produced that war was never really stamped out, and for that the entire nation has paid a huge price.
In the wake of the Civil War, that spirit rose quickly from the rubble and took back control of the region it had led into disaster. In a mere decade, it reestablished racial tyranny. And, for many generations, it was that spirit that was allowed to distort the nation’s understanding of that nightmarish war, with a distorted narrative celebrating the “Lost Cause” and its fighters.
As a result, we all lost that war.
Now that spirit is back, insisting on strife in our politics, waging another struggle for dominance, advancing the forces of exploitation, and once again inflicting profound injury on America.
Once again, it is that spirit that is insisting that our politics be a continuous battle. And this battle, at a fundamental level, can be understood as a real “Civil War re-enactment.”
America lost that war the first time. Let’s not lose it again.
Inadequately regulated, guns are killing too many Americans. Inadequately combatted, this resurgent dark spirit is killing what’s best in America.