Take no pride in the stars and bars

This should be an easy call for everyone: the battle flag of the Confederate States of America is a symbol of traitors who went to war against their own country with the primary goal of preserving their ability to buy and sell human beings as property.  I don’t understand why that flag has been treated with respect anywhere since the day Lee surrendered to Grant.

This was never an issue for me as a kid: either we lived in New York, Ohio or Minnesota where I don’t remember ever seeing the Stars and Bars displayed, or we lived in Alabama and Texas but I was too young to understand what the flag symbolized, or how often one would see it flying.  I admit, ashamedly, that once I was old enough to understand, I didn’t think much of it: so what if a neighboring high school was named after Robert E. Lee, and their mascot was the Rebels, and the Confederate battle flag was their flag.  It didn’t register for me, meant nothing.

The first time I experienced cognitive dissonance over the display of Confederate symbols was when I arrived at college, at The University of Texas at Austin, in the fall of 1975.  Suddenly there were a lot of places where people were very seriously, and very publicly, paying homage to the men who provoked a war with America over the issue of slavery.

Mostly for me, it was the statues. The South Mall, just beyond the plaza in front of the Main Building—the Texas Tower—features heroic statues of three icons of the Confederacy: CSA president Jefferson Davis, and army generals Robert E. Lee and Albert S. Johnston (plus CSA postmaster general John Reagan).  They were put 3371952120_246b01a6ed_zthere in the early 20th century, along with a statue of President Woodrow Wilson and one of former Texas Governor James Hogg, in conjunction with the Littlefield Fountain, all envisioned as a grand entry to the university and a memorial for the university students who died in World War I, which in the sculptor’s view was the beginning of real healing after the Civil War since it was the first time Americans from all across the country started to act as citizens of the same country again.  There was also supposed to be a statue of George Washington that didn’t get finished in time due to finances, and it was later placed nearby.  (A good short history of the UT statues is here, in a recent article in the Austin Chronicle.)

You put up a statue of someone, you’re honoring them and what they did and stood for in their lives.  For me, one day on the South Mall, I finally thought, why the hell is my university honoring traitors?  Racist traitors?  Why do we in Texas name streets and schools and public buildings after these people?  The fountain nearby (pictured) has an inscription memorializing those who died in WWI, and a second inscription recognizing another conflict:

To the men and women of the Confederacy, who fought with valor and suffered with fortitude that states’ rights be maintained and who, not dismayed by defeat nor discouraged by misrule, builded from the ruins of a devastating war a greater South and to the men and women of the nation who gave of their possessions and of their lives [so] that free government be made secure to the peoples of the earth this memorial is dedicated.

Just a few more blocks to the south, on the grounds of the state capital, there’s a Confederate Soldiers Monument, and another to the 8th Texas Cavalry known as Terry’s Texas Rangers.  What the f***?

The shooting deaths of nine people in a Charleston church last week, by a young man who used the Confederate battle flag as part of his symbology of white supremacy, has sparked (seemingly from out of nowhere) a lot of discussion about the propriety of governmental display of these symbols of racism , and caused me to consider the issue.  Let me be clear about my position.

I’m not saying that all the Confederate flags and all the statues of all the Confederate “statesmen” and generals, and all the memorials to the Confederate soldiers, should be banned or removed or destroyed.  I’m not suggesting we pretend that the Civil War didn’t happen; we need museums and displays that can tell the story in context.

I am saying, those people were wrong to enslave their fellow men and women and children, and they were wrong to try to secede from the United States so they could continue to do so; they lost the war they started, which cost their part of the country most dearly in lives and treasure.  And we as a people, as a nation, as state institutions, should not be seeming to honor them and their actions by displaying their flag.  As individuals, you or I can fly any flag we choose, for whatever reason; but there is no reason I can think of that any government entity in the United States should make any prideful display of the symbols of a failed racist rebellion.

And let’s be clear about the motives: the states of the Confederacy fought that war to protect their ability to engage in human slavery. Ta-Nahesi Coates has the goods in a recent article in The Atlantic.

The Confederate flag is directly tied to the Confederate cause, and the Confederate cause was white supremacy. This claim is not the result of revisionism. It does not require reading between the lines. It is the plain meaning of the words of those who bore the Confederate flag across history. These words must never be forgotten. Over the next few months the word “heritage” will be repeatedly invoked. It would be derelict to not examine the exact contents of that heritage.

And examine it he does, using the words of the secessionists to deny any modern-day claim that the Confederacy was not about preserving slavery. 

  • South Carolina: “…A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction. This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.”
  • Mississippi: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin…”
  • Louisiana: “As a separate republic, Louisiana remembers too well the whisperings of European diplomacy for the abolition of slavery in the times of an­nexation not to be apprehensive of bolder demonstrations from the same quarter and the North in this country. The people of the slave holding States are bound together by the same necessity and determination to preserve African slavery.”
  • Texas: “…in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding states….”

You get the idea.  Civil War documentarian Ken Burns backs up the argument; South Carolina state senator Paul Thurmond, son of famous racist and Dixiecrat presidential candidate Strom Thurmond, says the “heritage” some claim to be glorifying is nothing to be proud of.

All the talk of “state’s rights” is just polish on the pig: the right that the Confederate States of America was trying to protect was the right to own other human beings.  Their agricultural economy depended on free labor in the fields and in the master’s house.  Those people fought a war to maintain slavery in this country; that’s not worthy of our respect, and neither is their flag.

In the wake of the Newtown school shooting

Passing along links to what I think are worthwhile reads on the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, and the aftermath…

For starters, here’s a dispassionate chronology from the Hartford Courant of just what happened in that school that morning. Just the facts ma’am, as best as they are known at the time.

Adam Lanza blasted his way into the Sandy Hook Elementary School. He fired a half-dozen thunderous rounds from a semiautomatic rifle to open a hole big enough to step through in one of the school’s glass doors.

Once inside, he had to make a choice.

Principal Dawn Hochsprung’s office was straight ahead. To the right, 25 or so children were rehearsing a play in the school cafeteria. To his left were the first-grade classrooms.

Lanza turned left.

The initial reaction of most people is disbelief that such a thing could happen…yet it’s been happening more and more frequently in recent years. In Slate Emily Bazelon wonders, if this doesn’t make us change our attitude about guns, what would?

In the United States, we’re divided, and we have no universal basic knowledge of weapons. We make it incredibly easy to buy the kind of weapons that shoot and shoot again instantly, but we don’t search people at the doors of schools or malls or movie theaters, and we don’t post armed guards in these places. We have the guns without the safety checks. We call that freedom.

Of course there are plenty of people renewing calls for more gun control, for outlawing assault weapons, for some kind of change in the law to make us feel safer. But it’s not just “gun control” people; some pretty staunch gun rights advocates are urging another look at the subject with an open mind.

Joe Manchin III, the pro-gun-rights West Virginia senator who drew attention in 2010 after running a commercial that showed him firing a rifle at an environmental bill, said that “everything should be on the table” as gun control is debated in the coming weeks and months.

David Frum makes a great point about the nuts and bolts part of any change in gun laws: he believes the push must come from outside government, along the lines of what Mothers Against Drunk Driving did to change the culture, to avoid politically polarizing the debate and dooming any chance for agreement.

That campaign should be led from outside the political system, by people who have suffered loss and grief from gun violence. Only that way can the campaign avoid being held hostage by the usual conflict of parties — Democrats who fear that gun control will lose them rural congressional districts; Republicans who exaggerate for partisan gain exactly what gun control would mean.

Gun control should no more mean the abolition of guns than Mothers Against Drunk Driving abolished the car.


Responsible gun owners have a right to their guns. The challenge for the grass-roots gun-safety movement of the future is to focus on the danger posed by irresponsible owners. The goal should be less to ban particular classes of weapons — such a goal puts the law in a race against technology, a race the law will likely lose — and more to change the rules defining who may keep a gun.

Impossible, you say—there’s no way we could change the culture on guns. Well, we’ve done things like this before

To modern sensibilities, the injustice [of lynching] once again seems obvious, as do the solutions: Prosecute lynchers, fight for racial justice, strengthen the rule of law, and mobilize public opinion to condemn rather than excuse outbursts of brutality. And yet it took more than 100 years for lynching to begin to disappear as a feature of American life, and even longer for Americans to fully acknowledge the depth of its horror. In the meantime, thousands of influential people, including many esteemed congressmen and senators, argued that lynching was simply a fact of life, a random act of violence about which nothing could be done. It was not until 2005 that the U.S. Senate, spearheaded by Mary Landrieu, apologized for failing to pass federal anti-lynching legislation, and for leaving hundreds of innocent people to be sacrificed to official inaction.

But just changing gun laws isn’t the answer; we should look at changing not only laws but our attitudes toward mental illness, and be better at seeing the warning signs that disturbed people give before they commit such an extreme act of attention-grabbing.

One reason shooters tip their hands is that they are trying to solve a problem. Though they are often intelligent, high-performing boys, their peers tend to see them as unattractive losers, weak and unmanly. In a school culture that values sports prowess over academic accomplishment, they face rejection. The shooters are rarely loners, but tend instead to be failed joiners, and their daily social experience is full of friction. Since they are almost always mentally or emotionally ill, those rejections — so common in adolescence — take on greater importance and become a fixation. Rebuffed after trying to join friendship groups, they look for ways to gain attention, to reverse their damaged identities.

The shooting is the last act in a long drama: a search for acceptance and recognition. The earlier acts fail miserably. But once a shooter starts to talk about killing people, ostracism can turn to inclusion. Suddenly, he is getting the attention he has been craving.

Help for mentally ill. A change to the culture of guns. David Gergen makes the case that we must take action to honor these dead and do it now or next time the blood will be on our hands.

Some years ago, no one thought that we could change our tobacco culture. We did. No one thought that we could reduce drunk driving by teenagers. We did — thanks in large part to Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Years from now, no one will note what we say after this latest massacre. But they will hold us morally accountable for what we do. To honor all of those who have been slain in recent years — starting with the first-graders in Connecticut — we should highly resolve to change our culture of guns.

Meanwhile, to some measure of surprise, the National Rifle Association is laying low. Out of respect? Don’t know; they’re not talking.

On Dec. 13, the National Rifle Association’s Twitter account announced a giveaway promotion, thanked its followers for getting its Facebook page up to 1.7 million “likes,” and related a story from Wyoming in which a gunman apparently retreated from a nail salon after realizing one of its customers was “packing heat.” It tweeted the Wyoming case using the hashtag #ArmedCitizen.

On Dec. 14, the day an armed citizen killed 26 unarmed women and children at a Connecticut elementary school, the NRA’s Twitter account went silent. It has not tweeted since. Meanwhile, its Facebook page has disappeared, along with those 1.7 million “likes.” Navigating to www.facebook.com/nationalrifleassociation now redirects to the Facebook homepage.


UPDATE Dec. 18: The NRA ends its silence with this statement.