Down, down the memory hole we go. Where we stop, nobody knows.
I was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia. Despite growing up in the capital of the Confederacy, and later attending Washington & Lee (as in “Robert E.”) University, I have never owned, flown, or worn a Confederate flag, nor have I ever desired to do so. Not once. I think the decision to remove the flag from capitol grounds in South Carolina is the correct one, over and above being politically expedient.
That said, I knew that the announcement by Governor Haley would open the proverbial floodgates, as in-sync Democrats and Republicans grappled over which of them were on the “right-er” side of history.
Those of you with sharper long-term memories may recall that, not very long ago, this saga began as a horrifying story about a racially-motivated killing spree. The media transformed the discussion into an attempt to renew interest in two old favorites: Gun control (which, despite their best efforts, never gets traction) and the flag. Pressing every GOP candidate on the topic, and spotlighting any less-than-satisfactory answer, media attention was able to drive this issue to the forefront of American discourse within a matter of 48 hours after the capture of Dylann Roof.
As I said, I support the flag being removed. But I would have couched it in terms of “Whatever one thinks about the meaning of the flag, it is indisputably a flag of rebellion and a flag that should not be considered sanctioned by this government via official display on state grounds.” Simple, clean, and it acknowledges a reevaluation of the flag’s place in contemporary culture.
But that’s not exactly what happened. The removal of the flag was framed, as Senator Tim Scott put it, in these terms:
I do not believe the vast majority of folks who support the flag have hate in their hearts. Their heritage is a part of our state’s history, and we should not ignore that.
However, for so many others in our state, the flag represents pain and oppression.
Because of that, as a life-long South Carolinian, as someone who loves this state and will never call anywhere else home, I believe it is time for the flag to come down.
Note the language used: The “vast majority” don’t have malice in their hearts, and mean no offense. But, the flag nonetheless must go.
While I agree with the outcome, the key point for me is the state-sanctioning aspect. As in, the state should only be flying official flags of the state and federal government. A flag that is one of secession and rebellion (“treason,” used often, is a poor word choice) should not be given that official sanction. That would have been reason enough.
Yet, what we got from the GOPers who pushed for its removal was a more feelings-based—dare I say Democrat-esque—rationale, resting on the very contemporary notion that, if anyone is offended, the right thing to do is to remove the offending item. It’s interesting to see here how even Republicans use language that structurally tracks the usual beats of progressive thought.
This is not a narrowly-tailored justification for removal. The danger is the creeping sway of the idea that images that are offensive (or even potentially offensive) must vanish from public view or popular culture.
The consequences of this principle are obvious. Once the state essentially declares something “officially offensive,” those well-intentioned folks Scott told us make up the majority of those who might display the flag suddenly become “Nazi-fied.”
That was already the belief of many on the Left, of course, but now the message carries with it a form of official state endorsement—from Republicans, no less.
Within hours of Governor Haley’s announcement, Wal-Mart announced that they would no longer carry any items that “promote” the flag. Sears, Amazon, eBay, and etsy followed suit. Even the mere selling of something emblazoned with the flag is seen as potentially destructive and racist.
In my original piece on this topic, I wrote “No word on whether we’ll still be able to purchase Dukes of Hazzard DVD sets without resorting to the world’s lamest black market. Who knows—by the time you read this, CMT may have pulled the show’s reruns from the air.”
A week later, TV Land dropped Dukes reruns.
Make no mistake—the purge won’t be limited to the Confederate flag itself. What about people related to the Confederacy? Mitch McConnell has already said a statue of Jefferson Davis needs to be removed from the Kentucky Capitol.
What about things named for or honoring Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson? Back home in Richmond, a group is pushing for a major Richmond-based bike race to circumvent Monument Avenue, which includes several statues of Confederate leaders (alongside a statue of Arthur Ashe).
What about slave-owners from any era? Surely, it takes very little imagination to extend the argument that far. Is my alma mater in danger of becoming Ampersand University? And there’s already talk that the Jefferson Memorial may be the next target.
There’s also a “me too” element that goes along with the one-upsmanship. I pointed out a week ago that, “The most obvious and predictable next step will be for those who have already analogized the Confederate flag to the symbols of sports teams with Native American nicknames to demand immediate removal of those names and symbols as a part of this tidal wave of elite opinion and weak-kneed corporate capitulation.”
Naturally, this has also already happened, as the usual folks (Keith Olbermann, Dave Zirin, Mike Wise) have made that connection and renewed their frequent objections to the Redskins nickname.
The Washington Post‘s Clinton Yates is already extending that argument, however.
“There’s still a memorial to George Preston Marshall at RFK Stadium, and it isn’t going anywhere,” was the title of Yates’ column today. Note the wording of the title.
As in, “Can you believe it?”
The author is incredulous that Marshall, noted for his anti-black views, would have any public recognition in 2015. Yates acknowledges Marshall’s immense contributions to the NFL’s financial viability and popularity, but implies that this is trumped by his racism-tainted legacy.
Therefore, in that renewed spirit of memory-holing currently running rampant, Yates concludes thusly, beginning with a quote from Erik Moses, the Senior VP of the company that runs the RFK site:
“If we tore down all the monuments and took the names off every building for any person who had what is now an unpopular belief, we could employ a lot of people to do a lot of those projects,” he said.
Now, that’s an idea.
Yes. That’s an idea. I can’t dispute that this is, strictly speaking, an idea. It meets the basic definition of the word “idea.”
It’s a horrible, myopic idea. But it’s an idea nonetheless!
That idea being, of course: Tear everything down! Anyone who has a belief that, today, would be considered unpopular or offensive should be erased from public view!
This primitive, short-sighted impulse isn’t even the most objectionable concept presented in the column.
That came earlier, when Yates, making reference to the fact that the Obama Administration has (irrelevantly) proclaimed that it will attempt to block a new stadium for the Redskins in the District of Columbia because of the team’s nickname, said:
“If [George Preston Marshall] was also the architect of the very thing that the White House considers offensive, does he still deserve a statue?”
Emphasis mine. Note carefully the premise that Yates accepts: If the government—the government—finds something to be offensive, that’s cause for removing statues, plaques, awards, symbols, flags, and names that would fall into that “offensive” category.
We should be looking to the White House as an arbiter of offensive speech?
Things are shifting so quickly in this country that it’s difficult to separate outliers from bona fide trends. But this recent surge of moving to purge symbols and people connected to unpopular ideas seems rooted in a distaste for this nation’s traditions, as well as a remarkable deference to government opinion on matters of good taste and speech.
This is beyond alarming, and it speaks to one of the pitfalls when we permit crippling importance to be assigned to certain symbols and words.
Once we’ve established that those things are potentially so harmful or “dangerous” (you know, as in, they could cause a mass murder, apparently), then we open the door for the argument to be made time and again that we need to remove those items for the good of us all. In the name of safety and decency, of course. And not just flags. But statues. And mascots. And television shows. And movies. And video games.
The message is unmistakable: People cannot be expected to control themselves if there’s even a possibility that an image or idea will evoke an emotional response. What’s more, that response may be violent in certain cases.
As such, in the name of the aforementioned safety and decency, it is the responsibility of society to treat its members, collectively, as it would treat the most sensitive child.
That is the mentality we must fight. And this purge will continue until we muster the will to shut it down.
If the most strident activists and their media allies are given a blank check, however, expect a big withdrawal—from history, pop culture, sports, and everything in-between.