Sometimes we’re so busy patting ourselves on the back that we fail to grasp the simplest truths.
When we elected Barack Obama in November 2008, we thought we had finally entered the world of nations—a world in which a minority could ascend to the highest office in the land. We trumpeted the end of racism, the beginning of a new era of equal rights.
In the thirty-five years since Ronald Reagan took office, the rich have become astoundingly wealthy, the poor have languished in a society that renders their situation worse every year, and the middle class has struggled to remain an entity at all. The election of one man has not reversed anything. I’d like to think it’s made a dent, but if it has, the dent is pretty hard to discern–and it has come with continuous Republican obstructions. All those pats on the back we gave ourselves seven years ago were probably premature. And if we ever elect a woman president, try to remember that, while it may mean something symbolically, it means nothing to the vast number of Americans trying to make a living.
Fast forward to 2015 and the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the State House in Charleston, South Carolina. Once again we’re congratulating ourselves for an act which, in the grand scheme of things, means nothing. I get that seeing that flag was an affront to many people black and white, and that flying it on public grounds gave it undeserved credibility. But it’s a piece of cloth on a pole. If it’s a symbol, and it is, can we agree that a symbol can, by definition, mean different things to different people? In Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter the letter A may signify adultery, but may just as easily symbolize able, or angel, or even ambiguity. And perhaps people whose ancestors were brutalized by Christianity look upon the cross as a symbol of abhorrence and hatred while others view it as the focal point of their lives. So who’s right? And who gets to decide which symbols endure and which ones don’t?
I don’t care if I ever see the Confederate flag again—I’m a white northerner born eighty years after the Civil War and I feel no personal revulsion or admiration for the thing. But that’s me. Others feel differently and, as I said, I get that. But the mania to remove every vestige of it (Walmart won’t sell it? Walmart?) is the result of the same kind of panic that afflicted us after 9/11—the panic that gave us Homeland Security and authorized torture and sent close to 9,000 US and Coalition troops to their deaths between 2003 and today. Impoverished and downtrodden Americans, black and white, southern and northern, face many more dire problems than a flag waving atop some pole or a smaller one held by a racist murderer in a photo. When we can address the real problems of prejudice and poverty in some meaningful way, then we can give ourselves maybe one pat…a small one…and then get back to work.