America is, for better or worse, a country that’s fond of grand gestures. It’s a country that’s fond of grand narratives, too, of watershed moments when a single event catalyzed change.
We see it in the way that laws are tied inextricably to the cases that inspired them, often named for the victim of a crime — Megan’s Law, Caylee’s Law, and so on. We see it in the way that our history is taught as a series of significant dates and events. And in the last week, we’ve seen it in the wake of the Charleston massacre, which has led to a drive to abolish the Confederate flag.
This, obviously, is entirely welcome unless you’re the sort of right-wing demagogue who’s been happy to profit from a century’s worth of whispering about “heritage” and “states’ rights” as a way of appealing to voters whose prejudices can’t be courted directly. This has ever been the case in the world of conservatism, with the only difference being how far you take it: right-wing performance-art bot Ann Coulter, for instance, hilariously claimed this week that “anyone who knows the first thing about military history, knows that there is no greater army that ever took the field than the Confederate Army”… overlooking the fact that, y’know, they had their asses handed to them by the Union.
Beyond fringe cases like Coulter, though, the Confederate flag has provided a convenient dog whistle for prejudices and views that are best left unspoken in public. Flying it is a way of endorsing what it symbolizes — bigotry, slavery, unreconstructed racism — without ever actually voicing those things, which in this day and age is political suicide, even in the lunatic fringes of the Tea Party and beyond. It’s a nudge and a wink, a way of saying quietly that, hey, you know what I’m thinking, and you’re thinking that too, right?
As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in The Atlantic last week, any serious examination of what the flag stood for makes its presence in any sort of government institution entirely untenable: “Visitors to Charleston have long been treated to South Carolina’s attempt to clean its history and depict its secession as something other than a war to guarantee the enslavement of the majority of its residents. This notion is belied by any serious interrogation of the Civil War and the primary documents of its instigators.” (Four days later, he provided exactly that interrogation, which is compulsory reading for anyone seeking some understanding of the history of this country.)
Rapper Killer Mike echoed that sentiment a couple of days later:
It has no place in the building, no place on the building, no place around the building… My primary objection to it is firmly grounded in a political argument, not an emotional one. It’s less to do about me — ‘Hey, I’m black and it hurts my feelings, it’s a symbol of slavery and oppression’ — and more to do with the fact that, as an American, I will not honor a group of … traitors. That’s why I despise the rebel flag. Long live the South, and quickly die the Confederacy.
So, yes, take down the Confederate flag, for all these reasons and more. But then what? Taking down a flag is easy. It’s a grand gesture that commands attention, it’s good PR, and it feels like exactly the sort of watershed moment of which America is so fond. The problem is that the flag issue risks overshadowing what’s really needed to prevent another Charleston: fundamental, far-reaching social change. The flag is a symbol, certainly, but it’s what it symbolizes that’s the real issue.
A couple of days after the shooting, I remember it striking me how the Guardian‘s US homepage was entirely devoted to articles about the Confederate flag. The shooting itself had become almost a footnote to the issue, and that’s a problem. The nine people killed by Dylann Roof weren’t killed by the Confederate flag — they were killed by an ideology born of a continued belief that black people exist only to be subjugated, of toxic resentment and jealousy and a sense of frustrated entitlement. They were killed by hatred. They were killed by racism. The flag symbolizes all those things, but they don’t magically dissipate when you tear it off the flagpole.
This needs to be the first step, not the last. Conservatives know that as well as anyone, which is why they’re defending the flag so bitterly. As Jonathan Chait wrote in a surprisingly sensible piece for New York, “Those conservatives alarmed at the current backlash against the Confederate flag are probably correct that it will not stop at the flag itself.” I’m not so sure about that, though. History has shown that we have a tendency to sit on our hands after making a change like this, to congratulate ourselves on a symbolic gesture and then go back to life as normal.
America cannot go back to life as normal, because it has several centuries’ worth of history to work out before it can even contemplate doing that. Slavery as an institution is ended (except when it isn’t), but racism is alive and well. The systemic exploitation and under-privileging and mistreatment of America’s black population is alive and well, and not just in the South. Incarceration is alive and well. The sort of ideology that drove Dylann Roof is alive and well, and it’s not as easily dispatched as a flag.
There is a great deal of work to do. Most of it doesn’t fit grand narratives — the sort of change this country needs isn’t effected at rallies in front of cheering crowds, or with TV appearances with a tear in the eye, or with heartfelt statements for the nation. What use is taking down the flag if Southern schools still teach revisionist propaganda? If black people can’t get mortgages? If an outrageous number of black men are incarcerated? The very real danger in the wake of Charleston is that the nation’s response will stop at the flag — and that would be the grandest, emptiest gesture of them all.