I got into it with an old friend from high school on Facebook the other day about the Confederate flag. It’s funny, because I have not seen this person in about twenty years, and I have nothing but good memories of him. We weren’t best buddies, we never slept over or anything, but we ran in the same circles and I always liked him. He was a fun, funny guy who I was always happy to see when we showed up at the same parties, and there were a lot of those.
Other than being Facebook friends, we’ve had no contact at all in a million years, but through Facebook I was aware that he is married with kids in North Carolina and just a bit to my right politically. That’s fine by me — my whole family is to my right politically, and we don’t yell at Christmas dinner. To me a difference of opinion between friends is just that, and I remember this person as a friend, so I have no interest in fighting with him about matters I’ll never change his mind about, nor he mine.
I was on vacation in Grenada with my family when the shooting in Charleston happened. I was slow to read about the story because I was on vacation, consciously trying not to look at my phone every five minutes. We found out about it from a taxi driver, who was deeply upset about it, and over the next few days everywhere we went people asked us about it because, in a 99% black country, we stood out as obviously American.
These people were far more upset about it than, from what I could tell on social media, the average person in America was. When the national discussion turned to the Confederate flag, my old friend posted the following:
I didn’t reply to this post right away, but it stayed with me for a couple of days, on the plane back to Brooklyn, into the next night. He seemed to be angrily arguing against a straw man position. No one is blaming the flag, they’re suggesting that we stop poking African Americans in the eye with it. And by the way, while I’m sure that not all people who wave that flag are racist, let’s not pretend that when racists want a flag, it’s overwhelmingly the one they turn to.
Then a couple of days later, he posted something else:
I guess my friend knows some history that I do not, that explains how the Confederate flag was not the battle flag of an army formed to fight for the right to continue slavery. I’m willing to allow that this is possible. I haven’t read all the books. But what does “the South and the Democrats” have to do with anything? The Democrats sucked on Jim Crow, everybody knows that. George Wallace was a Democrat, Strom Thurmond was a Democrat. So what? The South was uniformly Democrat when Kennedy and then Johnson started moving on civil rights, and Southern Democrats (the racist ones, at least) were not down with that; Richard Nixon shrewdly courted those voters (it was called the “Southern Strategy”), turned them into Republicans, and the South has been Red ever since. I’m not sure what that has to do with whether the Confederate flag is a racist symbol, though. Parties change. The Democrats used to suck and they’ve gradually gotten better, and let’s just say the Republicans are trending down. Is the idea that I vote Democrat, so I’m duty bound to support any and everything Democrats have ever done? That’s silly. Does it work that way in reverse, too?
Anyway, this guy was such a nice guy when I knew him, I had a hard time squaring the startling lack of empathy in what he wrote with the genuinely lovely guy I remember. But politics sometimes has that effect on people, by reducing everything to abstractions, to groups pursuing opposing goals in a zero-sum game. A metaphor came to me, and against my better judgement — I have never engaged a political argument on social media, except for the time I got into it with Roseanne Barr on Twitter — I replied to his first post:
I was fully adrenalized when I hit Reply, like I would be if I was about to get in a fight, which is obviously silly. In practical terms, who cares if this guy hates me now or whatever? I haven’t seen him since 1998. It will have zero effect on my life if he doesn’t consider me a friend anymore. But I still felt weird about engaging him on a topic he clearly has little sense of humor about. I left the computer for a while and when I came back there were two replies:
My hypothetical is embarrassing? I actually thought it was a pretty solid metaphor. What I wanted to do was think of a situation requiring a similar type of empathy, only on a much smaller, more human scale, to try to take the Red and the Blue out of it, and look at it as a human question between you and your neighbor.
I chose “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” to represent the flag in my metaphor because it’s a song no one could have an objection to on any philosophical level. By doing this, I am stipulating that sure, your love of the Confederate flag is pure and real and untainted by genocides or white supremacy, that it’s a totally harmless piece of cloth with a positive sentiment (let’s call it Southern Pride) at its core. I’m taking your argument that the flag is not an inherently racist symbol at face value in my little hypothetical. I then tried to think of a similar trauma that could befall your neighbor that would be roughly equivalent to an entire race suffering a 400-year Holocaust; having his daughter raped and murdered in front of him seemed to fit the bill. (Would it make more sense if it was his Grandmother? I dunno — now that you know what I’m going for, maybe you can suggest a better calamity to befall your neighbor to stand in for slavery.)
Anyway, the harmless song reminds your neighbor of the worst thing that’s ever happened to his family, so he asks you not to play it so loud anymore. Again, I think this is a pretty good metaphor. I thought maybe if you thought of it in terms of a human person who you have to see most days and look in the eye occasionally, and if I bent over backward to give you every benefit of the doubt to assume you’re not racist, that you might see this differently.
But then everyone knows a metaphor’s no good if you have to explain it, so I apologize.
In your reply, you offer a hypothetical of your own, uncloaked by metaphor, suggesting the flag might mean more to me if I’d lost ancestors in the war. Your reply overall was so angry, and so loaded with talk-radio buzzwords (telling me to “stop being a victim” when I’m just suggesting a little empathy for your fellow man doesn’t even make sense) that I decided not to reply because it was obviously going to devolve into namecalling and insults. I unfollowed the thread so I wouldn’t get sucked back into it.
But again, the thought stayed with me for a day or so. What if I had innocent, non-slaveowning ancestors who died for that flag? Would I feel differently about this? Rather than just fire back and defend myself and make fun of your spelling, I took a step back and thought about it for a couple of days.
The truth is, the Confederate flag doesn’t really bother me at all. Like a lot of white dudes my age, my main association with the Confederate flag is on the roof of the car from my favorite show when I was 9, The Dukes of Hazzard, Friday nights at 8 on CBS. There were no black people in Hazzard County, so there was no racism. To me, that flag represented hollering “Yeee-haw” while jumping over a closed bridge in an orange GTO, a fantasy I reenacted with my own scale-model General Lee in my bedroom. At no time was I thinking of slavery or white supremacy, just good clean fun.
The flag doesn’t bother me because I’m a white dude; no one has ever waved it while demeaning my humanity. But there is a whole segment of the population that suffered grotesquely under that flag. It’s not hard to understand why they don’t want it flying over government buildings. It’s like flying a Nazi flag in Tel Aviv and then wondering why people don’t like it.
I am willing to believe that your associations with the Confederate flag are 100% positive and centered on family and tradition and sacrifice and Mint Juleps and whatever else. I don’t question your totally honorable, legitimate regional pride. But you seem to feel that pride will be canceled out by the acknowledgement of black people’s pain, or that the flag is closely tied to that pain. Is rubbing their nose in that pain really the only way you can feel your pride? You really have to blast “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” even though your neighbor’s telling you it reminds him of the worst thing that ever happened to him?
Your bosom warms with pride, you think of family and country and heritage every single time you lay eyes on that flag? That’s great. But for black people it’s pretty much the opposite. You seem to be arguing that reminding them every day that they were and (let’s face it, still are) seen by some as lesser citizens is an acceptable price to pay for you getting to feel your Southern Pride. The idea that another group’s feelings or perceptions or sense of pride is less important than yours is like thinking that they are less important than you, and I don’t want to use labels, but there is a word for that — it rhymes with “Gay Jizzum.”
You might say, all their suffering happened a long time ago, none of them were ever slaves, they’re trading on crocodile tears for a past they no longer have any real connection to. And I might suggest that you appear to be doing exactly the same thing. You say “Everybody is offended by something, get over it.” Well, old friend, you seem to be offended by the idea that you might have to confine your love of this flag to private spaces; this might be a good time to take your own advice and get over it.
I don’t mean to suggest that getting rid of the flag is going to turn any racists away from the dark side. It obviously won’t. If anything it will inflame them. Nor will it do anything to prevent future massacres. It’s just good manners, which I always heard were important in the South. Treating this huge segment of our society with the basic human compassion of acknowledging that they have a real grievance here, that their associations with the flag, while very different, are no less valid than yours, would go a long way toward helping them believe that racism is as over and gone as you say it is.