WASHINGTON, July 17, 2015 – The Confederate flag no longer flies over South Carolina’s capitol grounds. While many of us applaud that decision, it is symbolic, and policies and arguments built on symbolism can quickly metastasize into insanity.
The Confederate flag and Confederate battle flag were the symbols of a nation that fought for crime against humanity. Confederate soldiers my have fought bravely for honor and principle, but ultimately their nation fought for slavery in rebellion against the United States. Its flags have no place on public land.
Standing against symbols, though, is like standing against words. It can be messy and slippery, especially when as in this case the symbol is so tightly intertwined with popular culture. Rapper Andre 3000 displayed a battle flag prominently on his belt buckle in OutKast’s video, “Sorry Ms. Jackson.” Performers from Kanye West to Tom Petty to Lynyrd Skynyrd have displayed the battle flag, and West has claimed it as his own. “It’s my flag now. Now what you gonna do?” he asked?
Old soldiers of the Clinton-Gore ’92 campaign say that the battle-flag-themed Clinton-Gore buttons showing up on social media were not released by the campaign. That may be true, but it would be hard to show that they weren’t approved by some in the campaign; given the importance of the South to Clinton’s campaign, those buttons wouldn’t have hurt. The campaign certainly never demanded that they be destroyed.
That flag has been everywhere. While its political meaning as a symbol of the Confederacy is crystal clear, its cultural significance is not. In that, it does not deserve comparison with the swastika. It is more like the Arab crescent and the cross: a symbol of pride and identity, a symbol of faith, a symbol of terror and oppression.
Context means everything.
To scour American culture and history to delete the Confederate battle flag would be like scouring literature to remove words like “faggot” and “fag” (bundles of sticks and cigarette butts), to erase “nigger” from the works of Mark Twain, to delete every appearance of words deemed offensive on religious, racial, ethnic or gender grounds.
The First Amendment protects words. It protects unpopular words in particular, forcing us to tolerate that which we would rather force out of sight and out of mind. It protects our right to honor our heritage, set our own context, or simply to be offensive.
You have no constitutional right not to be offended. You have no right to be liked. You do have a right to offend, within limits, and to dislike whomever you please. You have a right to let others know just what you think about them, and no right not to be told what they think about you.
It isn’t just a stand against racism, but intolerance that drives some people to have “The Dukes of Hazard” erased from broadcast and sale, to suggest tearing down Washington’s Jefferson Memorial (Jefferson was a slave owner), and to consider renaming the city itself. It’s intolerance that impels the impulse to banish Confederate flags entirely from public view.
Deciding the symbols that should be displayed on public property is one thing; trying to set the standard for what we can say is entirely another.
The driving urge here is the desire to avoid offense: not to avoid giving it, but to avoid receiving it. We want to be liked and admired; we want anyone who doesn’t like or admire us to shut up.
To some people, the rainbow flag of the gay rights movement is deeply offensive. They have no right not to be offended if you decide to fly one. They have every right to try to ban its display on public property.
Gays have no right to be liked or admired, no right not to be considered sinners, but only the right to live their lives in this country with the legal and human rights of every other citizen.
Both sides have the right to be tolerated.
Obsession with offense is nearly a national pastime, with deepening roots in campus culture.
Students at Northwestern University in Illinois demanded sanctions against a faculty member who, in their opinion, belittled their concerns about sexual assault in a published article. Students at a number of universities have demanded that controversial speakers be banned from campus, and in cases where it’s been impossible to ban “triggering” speech, administrators have provided them with safe rooms where they could cuddle stuffed animals, hear soothing music, and be comforted by peer counselors.
The fight over which symbols fly over state and U.S. Capitol grounds is a legitimate public issue. I would vote to ban any flags but those of the United States and its various states and territories – Confederate, Swedish and rainbow alike – but that’s a decision for legislatures.
Which flags I can display on my home or my person, however, is a settled matter: The First Amendment leaves that decision to me.
Between those limiting cases, there is room for discussion and negotiation, unless intolerance reduces that room to nothing. Representative democracy only works well when voters act like adults. If our republic is to function well, tolerance and self restraint, adult virtues, are essential.
The First Amendment guarantees us the right to be tolerated, not to be liked. In fact, we are only called on to tolerate what we don’t like; what is liked or popular needs no protection. The people and the law have spoken on South Carolina’s capitol grounds.
Let tolerance and the Constitution speak everywhere else.