It is useful to begin this column by stating the conclusion first: symbols of the Confederate States of America, whether the Confederate Flag or statues and other public monuments of Confederate leaders, should be taken down. Furthermore, President Trump, who recently declared that such symbols are part of our “history and heritage,” is on the wrong side of this issue.
That said, those who are most vocal about eradicating such symbols from our public landscape are defeating their own purpose by overstating their case, thereby transforming a reasonable point of view into a cacophony of radical histrionics.
An apt summary of why the flags and statutes ought to be taken down was delivered by political comedian/commentator Bill Maher, host of HBO’s Real Time, who in a recent episode, taking on the accent of a generic Southern gentleman, called for “Southern hospitality” on this matter, stating: “Well, if this offends some people, I won’t do it.”
There is no question that to many Americans, Confederate symbols conjure extremely unpleasant memories of our nation’s checkered past, specifically regarding the abominable institution of slavery, and its often-related symptom of racism. At this point, debating whether or not the offended ones’ perspective is justifiable is beside the point. The question is, again, as Maher suggested: why do it?
That all depends, of course, on how important it is for people to brandish those symbols.
Consider this example: you host an annual Fourth of July barbecue, at which you always serve hamburgers, hot dogs, steaks, and ribs. But one of your guests this year is a staunch vegan who rails against the killing of animals for human consumption. Your spouse says: “let’s not serve any meat this year, because (the guest) will be highly offended.” Considering that you yourself are a meat-lover, as is the vast majority of your guests, you conclude that while it is unfortunate that this guest would be offended, the quality of your barbecue would be significantly impacted without any meat fare – and so you leave it on the menu.
Instead, suppose that the issue had to do with one of the songs on your playlist of, say 200, selections, which would last the entire afternoon into the evening. Your spouse explains that a particular song is painful, for personal reasons, to one of the guests, and so it would be best not to play it. In that case, you conclude that removing a mere one song from your repertoire of 200 will make no significant impact on your event’s quality, and so you readily agree not to play it.
The question, then, is, are Confederate symbols integral to the lives of those who want to retain them, or are some of those folks doggedly digging in their heels for the sake of principle?
Personally, I love the South: its laid-back lifestyle, homespun wisdom, food, music, and most of all, warm weather. This should go without saying, but just in case: I absolutely detest slavery and racism. To me, the Confederate symbols are not a source of pride or heritage, as I am not a Southerner. But as I am also not a descendant of American slaves (I’m a descendant of Greek ones), there is nothing personally chilling to me about the Dixie Flag. Yes, I know the KKK harassed Greeks in the South, but I don’t personally have any relatives telling me horror stories, as do many African-Americans and Jews.
To me, then, the Confederate Flag is something I can live with or without – like parades, beauty pageants, reality shows, the ballet, and coconuts (apologies to those who hold any of those things near and dear) – but I don’t particularly care if they continue to exist.
What a lot of people who want Confederate symbols removed fail to understand, though, is that to some people, the symbols are benign, conjuring fond memories of childhood (just as the George Washington Bridge does for me) rather than having anything to do with the evils of slavery and racism. That is detrimental to their cause, because angrily and irrationally accusing every single lover of Confederate relics of being a racist might reverse an inclination toward such Southern hospitality.
To continue with Maher’s line of thinking, the Southerner on the fence might say: “Well, if you shout at me, I no longer care very much about offending you.”
As I have written before, I expect more from President Trump in terms of the component of his presidency that is being Healer-in-Chief. I voted for him for the reasons I have enumerated countless times in this column, but I am the first to say when it comes to mollifying heated tensions, he is not the right person for that aspect of the job. But, I hope at least he tries to do more than he has done. Part of that may require him to speak about the evils of slavery and racism, without adopting his critical (justifiably) tone of those who falsely accuse him of being a racist just because he doesn’t condemn racists every single time he speaks, and because he dares to blame other people or groups for unprovoked violence.
Of course, there are some – and how many, we have no idea of knowing, because none of us are mind-readers – who purport to favor retaining Confederate symbols for historical reasons, but in reality simply or predominantly want to perpetuate their hateful, racist agenda. We saw examples of that in Charlottesville.
To conclude, then, weighing all the factors involved, I think the best thing to do for the nation as a whole is to remove Confederate symbols from public displays. The pain and conflict is simply not worth whatever nostalgic joy it gives to non-racist Confederate folklore enthusiasts.
However, to state this for the umpteenth time: the Nazis and the KKK are bad institutions. Donald Trump supporters and Confederate folklore sympathizers are not. Yes, there are some among them who are, but a broad brush that condemns all of them for the actions of a few is…well…quite racist.