The Confederate Flag: To Fly or Not to Fly

confederate-states-of-america-flag-painting-ABIn the wake of the tragic Charleston, S.C. shooting, a debate has been sparked about what to do with the Confederate flag.

On the one hand, the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates has weighed in and called for us all to “Take down the flag. Take it down now.” On the other side of the debate, David French of National Review says, “The flag should stay.” Coates’ argument is, in a nutshell, that, because the Confederate flag represents the Confederacy, which was formed explicitly to protect, maintain, and expand the horrendous institution of slavery, it has no place in our shared public life. It represents only hate and inhumanity, plunder and cruelty; therefore, we need to purge the country of its influence by a comparable, directly linked removal of the physical flag from all of our spaces. There is a seductive attractiveness to this line of reasoning: It speaks to our inner moral sense of right and wrong and calls forth from within us a certain hankering for justice and rightness.

After a brief analysis of Southern heritage, culture, the effect of mass death (from the Civil War) on the South, and the region’s current support of our military, French maintains that the flag should still fly—where it honors the valiant Confederate dead, that is (because that’s “just history”). He adds, however: “Flying it as a symbol of white racial supremacy is undeniably vile, and any official use of the flag for that purpose should end.”

Both sides miss important nuances of the debate.

Coates is a brilliant essayist, and I respect his analyses and opinions deeply. His long-form essay, The Case for Reparations, was a masterpiece. On this particular issue, however, he is wrong. Yes, the Confederate flag did stand overwhelmingly (even, as Coates would argue, solely) for an illegally-formed nation whose entire existence and purpose was to further the institution of slavery; this is undeniable from even a cursory exploration of the era’s primary sources.

What Coates fails to see, however, is an important fact about the flag itself: It is merely a flag. It can harm no one nor inspire anything unless we allow it to do so. Rather than rid the nation of the flag (or burn it, as Coates has now come to believe should be done after a series of tweets barraged his timeline) we should keep it flying … but not passively. We need to have an active, dynamic conversation about the flag: its significance, history, and reasons for existing.

Instead of hiding from our history, we must confront it. Clearly, what the Confederacy stood for was vile and evil. This much is beyond debate. But the flag did not kill those nine people. Dylann Roof did. Was he motivated by an ugly racial animus toward blacks? Yes. Did the flag in some way contribute to these sentiments? Perhaps. But we should ask ourselves honestly: Would removing the flag have prevented his killing spree? I have a difficult time in seeing how it could have. Should we ban all images of the flag, even in schools? How will students learn the history of America? Proposals I have heard have conceded it should be displayed only in museums, but this solves nothing; the flag can still be accessed there. And now, with the Internet, Roof could find images of the flag with a simple Google search and likely forums and other websites where neo-Confederate and -Klan members could spew their hate, thereby igniting his own. There are simply too many ways in which the same result—the death of nine innocent people—or worse, could have occurred, even with the flag’s being banned.

No, banning the flag solves nothing. It only lulls us into believing that we have “done something important.” Banning the flag reifies the legitimacy of its symbolic power. The flag does have power, but only if we allow it to have such sway. A clear and unabashed analysis of the flag is the only way in which we can hope to nullify its power. We expunge it at our own risk. Much like martyrs inspire more powerfully their causes than they ever could while alive, so, too, will the Confederate flag if it is removed from the public square. We will have merely facilitated the nightmarish transformation of the flag: from visible abomination to invisible abomination.

Where French errs is in conceding that there are scenarios in which the flag should not be flown. Reading his piece gives one the sense that any instance in which the flag is flown to support white supremacy are ones in which it should be taken down. I think this is overly blunt.

Should government institutions be permitted to fly the flag (South Carolina’s statehouse does)? No, but not because white supremacist ideology is abhorrent (remember: ideologies themselves are amorphous and difficult to accurately identify—they are beliefs, above all), but because the Confederacy was, in retrospect, an illegitimate state. While current legal and philosophical reasoning seem to point more strongly toward the notion that secession is a viable option for states to exercise—our shared public understanding—from politicians to academics all the way down to the “common folk”—is that the questions of secession, nullification, and “states’ rights” (the Civil War variety) have been settled: They are illegitimate. States cannot secede. States cannot nullify laws that they do not like. States have no overarching claim against the national government.

For government buildings to fly the flag is wrong because, at a basic, surface level, the flag represents an impossibility: The Confederacy never truly existed. President Lincoln and the might of the Union army settled that dispute once and for all, contemporary scholarship and academic inquiry be damned. Government offices should not fly the flag because doing so lends credence to the idea that the Confederacy itself was real and legitimate. It was no such thing.

Should private persons and institutions be permitted to fly the Confederate flag? Yes, not because we agree with their perspective—but because we do not. J.S. Mill, a 19th century British philosopher (and one of the greatest of all time), strongly opposed intrusive regulations on speech. He believed that freedom of speech was necessary in order to facilitate discussions on all topics. Continuous debate, he reasoned, would sharpen all arguments and lead humanity toward ever greater truths. Indeed, to silence speech was gravely wrong. In his great work, On Liberty, he wrote:

[T]here ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered. … If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.

19th c. British philosopher J.S. Mill.
19th c. British philosopher J.S. Mill.

Mill is saying that any doctrine—no matter how immoral we may find it personally—must be open to critique and that silencing any one person is as bad as silencing all of mankind. He does leave a caveat, however: preventing harm to others.

It could be argued that flying the Confederate flag—a stark symbol of slavery, racism, oppression, inequality as it is—causes (psychological) harm to blacks. Yet this is hardly what Mill meant – in no way is general psychological harm directly infringing upon any persons. In light of this, there should be a free and open debate on the subject, in perpetuity. The problem with wanting to ban the Confederate flag is that it leads us, very quickly, down a slippery slope. What else will fall in the crosshairs of “hate speech” patrollers after we have erased the Confederate flag from the public square? Discussions of abortion? Population control? Climate change? Religion’s role in public life? What will be the penalties for engaging in so-called “hate speech”? And who will get to decide both what is “hate speech” and the appropriate penalties for engaging in it?

These are all questions that should lead any person intent on preserving and enhancing liberty to see that there is no good way to answer them. They all leave far too open the possibility for abuse and tyranny.

Hiding our past does not help to heal the nation’s wounds. Pretending it never happened only serves to perpetuate the problems of that (mostly) bygone era. We must boldly face our heritage—hate-filled though it is—and say “no more!” We must resolve to learn from our past, not hurriedly shove it under the rug and pretend—hope—that this will prevent its influence from continuing to infect subsequent generations.

We need to recapture our power over history, and actively work to reshape the way that we perceive and react to those parts of our shared past that we dislike—the heinous parts.

We can only learn and grow and progress if we can see the object of our loathing, and banning it and speech about it simply come at too high a price.

To fly or not to fly? … I say, let it fly, but be sure we make it abundantly clear to any budding Roofs out there that what it stands for is dead and gone and that now is the time to transcend our previous ugliness.

That will bring real healing, and we will all be the better for it.

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About Deion Kathawa

Deion Kathawa studies philosophy and political science at the University of Michigan. He enjoys ice skating and binge watching Netflix (who doesn't, though?) in his spare time. He can be reached via email at Deion tweets @DeionKathawa and invites you to friend him on Facebook.