The oft-quoted and oft-misattributed line “History if written by the victors” has always been wrong. With enough spin, with enough apathy from the victors, the loser’s narrative can take hold and dominate the conversation. Like global warming denialism or creationism, there is no need to “win” the debate among academics. So long as enough of the lay public believes the spin, that’s all that’s’ needed.
The spin de jour are the increasingly feeble attempt to salvage the meaning of the Confederate flag. In the wake of the Charleston Church Shooting of June 17, 2015, discussion of the place of the Confederate flag has resurfaced given that the shooter, Dylann Roof, was an unrepentant white supremacist who idealized the Confederacy, Apartheid South Africa, and the former Rhodesia. This idealization goes hand-in-hand with the Confederate Flag flying at full-mast over the South Carolina Statehouse, while the American flag is at half-mast in honor of the victims of the shooting.
Given the sordid and twisted history associated with the “Rebel flag,” the continuing flying of that flag by any and all municipality and state government - South Carolina most of all - is an insult to not only the victims of the shooting, but all victims (direct and indirect) of white supremacy of the last 300 years.
By no means am I suggesting the Confederate flag should be banned from sale, or excised by society at large, a là Germany and Nazi insignias. But any decent human being should look at that flag and view it for what it is: the failed symbol of traitors who sought to expand a slave-holding society across a continent. The Confederacy deserved to die, and so should any nostalgia for it.
Yes, any one should be able to wave the Confederate flag at their own pleasure. But society at large should view those individuals as they would any loon waving the Nazi flag or the Islamic State’s banners: as people far outside decent society. But why has American society humored the Confederate flag-waving for so long?
Simply put, it is because of lies and apathy.
The Civil War was caused because of slavery. End of discussion. There is no historical debate over this question, and yet contemporary opinions outside of academia continue to push the lie that the Civil War was due to “state’s rights.” The simple rejoinder to that lie - “a state’s right to do what?” - should tell you how flimsy that idea is. And yet it continues to persist. High Schoolers are taught this lie under the well-meaning intent to show complexity to historical events. The problem is that while analyzing the minutia of battles, of individual motives, and of war-time strategies are themselves complex, the ultimate roots of the war are as simple as they are tragic.
This tragedy cannot be denied. Over 700,000 Americans died as a result of the war. And for what? The proposition that men can own men? And women? And children? On the basis of skin color? There’s nothing redeemable about this. Nothing at all. And yet, that’s the kicker: when confronted with such a horrible excuse, people create new myths to justify their collective actions. So the goal to preserve slavery became to “defend state right.” This Lost Cause became a lie that continues to this day, because so many people would rather deny the obvious that comprehend the horrors committed by their ancestors.
They’re not alone in this, and given the rash of denialism around the world towards genocides and atrocities, we can say that this reaction is “natural.” But whereas Germany has taken an active stance in combating revision and to fully recognize the magnitude of Nazism's horrors, this was not (and is still not) the case in the United States. Because while Nazism died when the Red Army sacked Berlin, American white supremacy didn't die. Jim Crow would metastasize as a result of Reconstruction's failure, and exist for another century until the Civl Right Acts of the 1960s ended it. But the racism that fueled it didn't die, only to recede under the surface where it still exists, manifested by Dylann Roof.
Defenders of the Confederate flag resort to emotional and parochial appeals: they say it is about heritage . But such a statement is itself racist. Why? Because whose heritage are we talking about? Are we talking about the heritage of only white Southerners? Or does the heritage of African-Americans not matter? Do the defenders of the flag even think what African-Americans think about the flag? I don't think the thought ever crossed their mind. Or if it did, they would resort to thinking that this is just another instance of "identity politics" and that by pointing out the evil behind the flag, that those complainers are the real racists.
Unironically, Dylann Roof said as much in his manifesto:
"I think it is is fitting to start off with the group I have the most real life experience with, and the group that is the biggest problem for Americans.
Niggers are stupid and violent. At the same time they have the capacity to be very slick. Black people view everything through a racial lense. Thats what racial awareness is, its viewing everything that happens through a racial lense. They are always thinking about the fact that they are black. This is part of the reason they get offended so easily, and think that some thing are intended to be racist towards them, even when a White person wouldnt be thinking about race. The other reason is the Jewish agitation of the black race.
Black people are racially aware almost from birth, but White people on average dont think about race in their daily lives. And this is our problem. We need to and have to."
There is absolutely no self-awareness here by Roof. While writing a screed about his rationale to murder and inflict human misery due to his racism, he instead lays blame on African-Americans for simply pointing out past injustices. This "racial lens" is a problem, according to Roof, because "white people" do not do that. This, lady and gentlemen, is what we called white privilege. But he's not exceptional in saying this. While crude, Roof is simply conveying an extremely common opinion. In a 2013 Rasmussen poll, more Americans thought that African-Americans were more racist than whites. Further, Pew found that half of American whites see no racism around them. This is despite de facto segregation, white flight, police brutality against minorities, and, oh yeah, the entire history of white supremacy against blacks and minorities. But it is the idea that because blacks and minorities - the victims of white supremacy - are voicing the damage wrought to them, that by simply speaking, they must be the real racists.
And the reason why this continues is because of apathy. Why bother with such a depressing issue when you yourself are not affected by it? Dylann Roof did say that he and his ilk did not think about race all that often. Sheltered by privilege, he could not muster the empathy to see why racism is still a menace today. Instead, frustrated by this and other small events through life, he took up the gun. And nine people are now dead.
In the wake of Sandy Hook, or the Aurora Cinema shootings, and of so many other mass shootings, I have little faith that gun control will ever be enacted. But the symbol of white supremacy still waves over the South Carolina Statehouse in Charleston. Cane we at least take that down? And cosign it to museums, textbooks, and cheesy Civil War reenactments?
Taking down the flag will not do anything meaningful to end racism. But at least we won't be humoring racists any longer.