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Jun 25, 2015

Where To Draw The Line

Yesterday, I posted a piece about flying the Confederate Battle Flag, where I mostly supported its removal but tempered that with the decision should be made by local governments rather than a national reaction. After I posted, I saw that Mitch Landrieu, Mayor of New Orleans, and other notable figures were calling for the removal of ALL Confederate Monuments and Symbols and claimed such have no value in a public space. When reading this, I honestly felt like reversing my stance from what I posted. I didn't and haven't.
But if I were suddenly empowered as Tyrant, I would tell one side, "Take down the flag and get over it;" and to the other side, "There, no more. Sit down and shut up!" It's probably a good thing I'm not in politics.
I understand the removal of statues and monuments. We did it in Iraq, destroying Hussein's statue in Firdos Square. History is filled with such examples. However, there is a difference between the abolishing of a regime's symbols of authority immediately after battle and destroying commemorative and honorable icons. This is where I side with the heritage and history part of the argument in the current "hate debate."
With this in mind, if only for my own edification, I'd like to explore the difference between taking down the flag versus razing monumental ground.
Without sounding like Sheldon Cooper, I think it is important to understand the symbolic and expressive purpose for flying a flag. Historically, flags have been field signs or standards used to identify association with and loyalty to a group or creed. Of course there are other purposes that flags can serve, such as semaphore or sporting rules, but in the sense of flying a flag over government buildings, military outposts or public spaces, it is generally agreed the meaning is one of victory, rule, association and allegiance.
To display the flag of Robert E Lee's army unit (because that is what we are discussing whether people understand that or not) does not seem to fit the purpose. However, I don't see the value in limiting free-market by banning its sale either, especially when those merchants continue to sell flags and symbols of our enemies. Just take it down from flying in public and government grounds. No one is a part of Robert E Lee's unit any longer and no one can reasonably make the argument they have continued association or allegiance to his battle unit. Further, if you want to tie it to other associations, unless someone is a segregationist of Strom Thurmond's Dixiecrat party, this will be a difficult argument to win. These are the two historic associations of this particular banner. Flying them in public should mean those flying the flag have association or allegiance to those groups, which should be untrue for official display. Having it on your own private property, that's a different story and protected on the First Amendment. (That said, it might not be the best PR move.)
In the specific case of South Carolina, the image was raised over the State House in 1961 to mark the 100th anniversary of the Civil War as an act of historical remembering and honor those who lost their lives in the war. In defense of the supporters of the flag, the purpose for raising the flag was not designed as display of hatred or to show support of slavery, as it has been recently suggested. However, I would still hold the opinion it is not an appropriate reason for flying the flag permanently.
I don't want to harp on the flag too long because that was my point yesterday; however, can anyone give an account of a flag flying in an official capacity of any former sovereign state? Flag of Assur? Flag of Uruk? Not sure these two actually had flags, to be fair. How about the flag of the Hanthawaddy Kingdom? Is the Imperial Standard of the Ottoman Sultan flown anywhere today? How about the flag of the Kingdom of Iraq from 1932? Even more recently, the Socialist Republic of Romania fell in 1989; does its flag still fly in any public space? It would be interesting if these did fly somewhere, but I doubt it and I believe those reading this will see my point.
However, let's get back to monuments and other symbols. The erecting of monuments and the display of statues is completely different from the purpose of flying a flag. These structures are commemorative and historical. Even if the event is horrific, we build these things to remember. Sometimes we re-purpose them, something bad to become useful or more relevant. Sometimes they remain untouched as a history lesson. Either way, these items should not be moved to museums; these items are museums in public spaces. They should only be moved to an enclosed museum when they become so famous or important, they need to be protected and better preserved, not because we are ashamed or want to hide them.
The thinking behind removing them falls in the same category as what I said in yesterday's post about removing the image of the Twin Towers from movies made prior to 9/11. No, we shouldn't do that. We need to preserve that history and not lie to future generations by painting an inaccurate picture.
I agree with those who support removing the Confederate Battle Flag from government buildings, but not because it is offensive. I support the idea because it is the inappropriate use and symbolism for the flag. Likewise, I support keeping Confederate Monuments in place for the exact same reason. It is the appropriate use of public display. Offense is not and should not be a factor. The Civil War itself offends me, but I should not have the luxury of merely ignoring that it happened.
And what does the removal of ALL symbols mean anyway? The Dukes of Hazzard's car has had the banner removed. Should we CGI-edit old episodes? What about the movie Gone With The Wind? Is it also taboo and illegal to show except in a museum? Civil War re-enactments? Are they unlawful? Will the song "Southern Cross" by Crosby, Stills and Nash (which is about the constellation, not the flag) be mistaken as a Confederate symbol and not be allowed air time on Pandora anymore? Where does it end and how do we decide?
Could you imagine asking the French to remove l'Arc de Triomphe? After all, it is a Monument built to honor Napoleon. Let us not forget Napoleon ordered ethnic cleansing in French Haiti, commanding the troops to kill all blacks over the age of twelve-years old. The argument could be made that the Parisian Monument is a symbol of hate. But there is no way it's coming down - and it shouldn't.
Further, should we remove all offensive statues and monuments? Let us not forget the iconic Michelangelo's David was a huge scandal in its day. It was offensive and to some still is. Should we remove statues of King Kamehameha because of his brutal history? What about statues of Jeannette Rankin? Her position would have made World War II a much bloodier end-game. Then there is Brigham Young; he was a polygamist - very offensive. El Mesteno in Denver? Just because it's scary.
We often suffer from presentism, the idea that our current culture and time period has achieved a proper understanding of human existence and ethics. The purpose of history is to remind us of how things were viewed differently than today. Sometimes that will be offensive. But it's important and even cultural. Let's not become closed-minded and start removing statues because we fear they might be offensive, make someone uncomfortable or even invoke guilt or sadness. That's what they should do. That's why they should be displayed. To remove them makes us no wiser than jihadists destroying ancient statues in the Middle East.
If you support the flag coming down. Good. But don't be emboldened in your current victory and ask for what is improper. Let's be careful not to become terrorists of our own history. 

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