Symbol

This month, the State of South Carolina retired the banner of a defeated army, more than 150 years after its dissolution.  The display of the “Confederate Battle Flag” at the SC Statehouse has polarized the politics of the Palmetto State for the better part of three generations. It was first raised in 1961, ostensibly in “celebration” of the centennial anniversary of the Civil War.  More accurately, it was a powerful and unmistakable protest of the fledgling civil rights movement.  Then, as a century earlier – before Shiloh absorbed a single drop of blood – the Stars & Bars represented one terrifying, wretched dream: The moral, political, and economic subjugation of a people via the power of the state.

That dream was crushed by General Tecumseh Sherman in his ruthless – and breathtakingly elegant – March to the Sea.  Atlanta and Columbia were reduced to ashes, the Confederacy collapsed, and General Lee relinquished his sword at Appomattox, but the fantasy of White Supremacy lived on in the hearts of white Southerners.  We named it the “Lost Cause” and gave it an unmistakable emblem: The flag of our disgraced ancestors.  There is no image in the American psyche more directly associated with hate, misery, or affliction than the Confederate flag.

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Homo Sapiens is a visual species.  Sight is our default sense.  It’s the means by which we gather our most reliable information.  It’s how we learn about the natural world, as well as about each other.  It should be unsurprising that when we seek to capture and to control each other, we erase the visual cues that identify our captive as an individual.  We do this in our prisons, in our armies; anywhere we need to create an illusion of control over groups of people.

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Women have been subject to this method of control in nearly all cultures, for nearly all of recorded history.  The most obscene example in our time is the modern Islamic custom of shrouding a woman’s entire body in dark, heavy fabric.  These garments – niqabs and burqas are the most common – erase the features that allow us to verify that a woman is, in fact, a person.  The Muslim girls who “choose” to wear the niqab (a minority of practicing Muslims) typically do so around the onset of puberty, a timeline consistent with the assumption that a woman’s sexuality is, above all else, a commodity that her family will protect, barter, and ultimately expend.

Both the niqab and the Confederate flag communicate allegiance to ideologies that permanently oppress and commodify human beings.  Defenders of both symbols – those who would have us accept them as part of our normal social scenery – argue that they represent defining characteristics of unique cultures.

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This argument is entirely valid.  The niqab and the flag do represent defining characteristics of their respective cultures; indeed, without those characteristics – misogyny and white supremacy – those cultures would be largely unrecognizable.  How could we begin to describe Afghanistan that didn’t feature a neurotic obsession with female chastity?  How could we describe South Carolina without the cumulative hate, the resentment of four centuries of persecution?  I’m deeply familiar with both, and I’m almost certain I wouldn’t recognize either.

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I was born into a liberal democracy, and I’ve largely internalized classically liberal values.  Chief among these – and the most indispensable – is a fierce belief in the absolute right to free expression, that all people have the right to express all ideas, no matter how repugnant or discredited.  Having mostly given up defending the ideologies they represent, defenders of these symbols have reinvented themselves as liberal heroes, victims of intellectual persecution.  Suspending, for a moment, the questionable allegiance Islamists and neo-Confederates have to Enlightenment values, their arguments are not only absurd, but also betray a strikingly similar sense of cultural entitlement.

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As the debate exists today in Canada and the United States, nobody relevant is proposing comprehensive bans on either the niqab or the Confederate flag, respectively.  If tomorrow the most severe legislation were passed against both symbols, the following behaviors would remain entirely protected:

  • A woman appearing in public entirely shrouded in dark, heavy cloth.
  • The same woman refusing to speak with men outside her family in her personal life.
  • A man flying a large Confederate flag from the bed of his truck.
  • The same man loudly expressing hatred and contempt for every black American with whom he interacts socially.

Each of these examples are instances of an individual expressing an idea. Those individuals do so either through overt personal communication, or a lack thereof.  I am absolutely committed to protecting the right to hate, either an entire group or one’s own self.

However, free expression does not imply a false “right” to co-opt the institutions of government or of other private citizens to legitimize hateful and barbaric ideologies.  For more than half a century, the Confederate flag enjoyed a position of dignity at an American state capitol.  That a state capitol is even such a revered location is a direct result of federalism, the astonishingly durable system of government outlined in the United States Constitution.  It’s the system that delicately balances powers of the federal and state governments, and which guarantees individuals our sacred “inalienable rights.”  The Confederacy sought to replace that government with one created for the explicit purpose of owning human beings.  The Confederate flag symbolizes the dream of a nation founded on the core assumption of white supremacy.

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In the case of the niqab, the question was if an immigrant could be compelled to bare her face for the duration of a naturalization ceremony.  In applying for Canadian citizenship, this woman expressed an ambition to become a part of one of the world’s great liberal democracies, one of the most vigilant defenders of Enlightenment values.  Moreover, the ceremony in question was meant to signify her unequivocal embrace of Canada, her people and her values.

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In both nations, a bigoted minority asserts that our commitment to freedom of expression requires that we pervert the symbols and ceremonies of government to accommodate their own message of intolerance.  We don’t, and as heirs to the legacy of the Enlightenment, we’re obligated to resist such efforts.  The United States and Canada became the grand, admired nations they are today specifically because we’ve  defeated similar attempts at countless points in our history.  Let’s not allow our cultural bashfulness to overpower our moral obligation.

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