It is de rigueur in modern America that any tragedy elevated to national headlines will be shaped and crammed into the narratives of our left/right political dynamic.
Usually mass shootings are pitched into the morass that is our national debate over gun control policy, but because perpetrator of the shooting at a historically black church in Charleston was an apartheid aficionado and confederate flag fetishist it has now morphed into debate over the display the confederate flag at South Carolina’s capitol.
The presence of that flag has sparked criticism for decades, but it seems Dylan Root’s massacre of innocent black Christians may finally have tipped the scales toward getting rid of the flag. The state’s Republican leadership – including Governor Nikki Haley, Senator and presidential contender Lindsey Graham, as well as state lawmakers – have pushing to take the flag down.
It’s about time. I’m not a resident of South Carolina, but if I were I’d want the flag taken down. The cries of southern heritage ring hollow to me, because what heritage exactly are they celebrating? The one in which the southern states went to war to protect the enslavement of human beings possessed of a certain skin pigmentation?
And spare me the nonsense about the south fighting for “state’s rights.” The assertion of those rights may have been a means to an end, but their end was slavery. In the Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina, which the state issued in 1860, the thrust of the argument was not tariffs or state’s rights but the “increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery.”
That’s no heritage I would want to celebrate at my state’s capitol. Confederate flags belong in history books, and on the faux-battlefields of Civil War reenactments, not flown proudly as a sign of heritage.
But all that aside, what exactly will taking down the confederate flag at South Carolina’s capitol accomplish?
Those championing the demise of the flag’s prominence in South Carolina will talk of progress and symbolic victories, but in truth all we’re doing is staging political theater. Points will be scored, political hay will be harvested, but outside of the bubble of left vs. right politics the racists will continue to hate.
The more daring of those extremists will continue to think look toward violence as a valid means to their ends.
There probably isn’t a satisfactory solution to that problem.
We cannot be the America that is home to the First Amendment while simultaneously picking and choosing the sort of speech we’re going to allow. Not when we have people like Hillary Clinton aspiring to power who would be more than happy to silence their political opposition by branding their speech as unacceptable extremism.
This is not idealism talking. Free speech in America is not an ideal. It is, if I might borrow a phrase from Atticus Finch, “a living, working reality.”
Part of that reality is that hateful, bigoted people get to speak. They get to communicate with one another and organize and push for their point of view in the same way countless other groups do in our country.
But that freedom comes with the risk that sometimes those who engage in America’s sprawling, brawling discourse might choose to make their point with murder and violence instead of merely words and speeches.
That’s a difficult reality to confront. Which is why, when our journalists and politicians are confronted with it, they retreat to the less rocky and more familiar ground of inane debate over a flag.