Ten days ago, there was no Confederate battle flag controversy. The issue, somehow, in the days since the Charleston massacre last Wednesday has gone from a half-forgotten culture war skirmish of the late ’90s to a suddenly renewed battle to the Republican governor of South Carolina, on Monday, calling for the flag to be removed from State Capitol grounds.
Other politicians in other states- including very conservative ones, led by very conservative politicians- jumped to make similar moves, even though many of them have spent years or decades arguing about Southern heritage, “honoring Confederate veterans,” and “Northern aggression.” Even Republican presidential candidates have jumped on the issue. Walmart, Amazon and other major retailers have dropped confederate flag merchandise. The Stars and Bars have even been removed from “Dukes of Hazzard” toys.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of this (well, I suppose you can make an argument that Apple pulling Civil War-themed games was excessive, as Erica Marceau did on our Apple channel.) The government entities that have moved to pull the flag from official places are acting to undo the official flying of the flag by government entities in the first place. And the moves by retail chains are decisions by private entities, who haven’t been forced into their actions not by the government but rather consumer pressure.
The problem isn’t that the Confederate flag is suddenly toxic. The problem was that it wasn’t toxic until ten days ago.
How did it this happen so quickly, following the massacre? It’s due to a confluence of factors, from the rise of social media to the slow progress of change to a newly emboldened liberal flank to, honestly, a lot of young people thinking about this issue for the first time and noticing “hey, that’s really screwed up.” Let’s not discount the emergence of Ta-Nehisi Coates as one of America’s leading public intellectuals. Coates piece, “Take Down the Confederate Flag- Now,” was published last Thursday and even if you agreed with it at the time, admit it: You didn’t think it would actually happen this quickly, did you?
And of course, it should go without saying that if we could undo the Charleston massacre we would, even if it meant the flags kept flying. And that taking down the flags wouldn’t have prevented the massacre. No one says it would have. Nor does anyone claim that removing the flags from government buildings would end racism. But it’s a start.
Here’s what I find fascinating about the Week the Confederate Battle Flag Died: It’s followed a year or two of hysteria about “political correctness” and the “PC Police” and the “choking” and “stifling” of free speech. Like at no time since the early ‘90s, people are arguing that they’re offended by things, and as a result those things must change or go away. Isn’t that an outrage?
That’s what so rich here. The Confederate flag episode has followed the exact template of just about every “PC” flap in the history of time. There’s something traditional that a loud but vocal minority is attached to. Younger upstart people begin agitating against that one thing, and the latter group carries the day. A lot of PC flaps are about things that are silly, inconsequential, and not especially impactful to that many people. And while the “destructiveness” of this has been wildly overstated, some of these things are ticky-tacky and relatively minor, like, say, the Cancel Colbert flap.
However, there are other times when the PC template is applied with good intentions, and used not to ill but rather for good. And Good PC has had some victories, in such cases as the growing pressure to change the Washington Redskins name to Donald Sterling continuing to own the Los Angeles Clippers to characters on sitcoms dropping gay slurs to the Philadelphia cheesesteak shop that as known, until two years ago, as Chink’s Steaks.
It’s a matter of degrees, of course. But when it comes to official government entities continuing to fly a flag that’s synonymous with racism, with slavery, with treason, with opposition to the civil rights movement- the PCs have it.
A lot of things are offensive to certain people or groups of people. But the year of PC Hysteria, and what just happened in regards to the flag, let’s keep one thing in mind: The operative question isn’t whether something is or isn’t offensive. It’s whether it’s reasonable for someone to be offended by it. Rather than arguing that the offended are always wrong, or always right, why not take it case by case?