Monday, June 22, 2015

The Search For Simplification

Ben and I discussed last night how rapidly the various media, with the support and encouragement of all of us, rapidly tries to find the one point of focus for every tragedy. The shooting in Charleston has coalesced around discussion of the Confederate flag.  Obama tried to make it about gun control right out of the gate, but it didn't stick.  I saw various attempts to tie it to a discussion of white supremacist groups, of gun-free zones, the shooter's complaint that there weren't enough racists nearby to get together with, and some less-likely ideas, but the Stars and Bars decoration has taken center stage. It isn't the most logically solid connection, but ideas have their time.

Personally, the very quick decision of the congregation to engage in public forgiveness was the stunner. I would have been impressed by an ability to mouth platitudes and talk about refusal to be defeated in The Struggle. They left that miles behind.  Only by grace, only by grace.  I hope someone makes a movie about the discussions leading up to that decision. Done well, that could be the longer legacy. The Amish did something similar a few years ago, and I was similarly humbled.

I wondered how many people are sincere in their sorrow and reaction, and how many are calculating, waiting cynically for the next tragedy in order to manipulate opinion and advance their political agenda.  Rahm Emanuel makes no bones about belonging to the latter group.  Most people I meet belong to the former. (However, I don't think their unwillingness to believe that Emanuel, Jonathan Gruber, and Eric Holder are A) really that dishonest and B) really that representative of those they work for/with is just naivete, trying to think the best of others.)

There is a social sense of journalists and public figures, able to sense early where the trend is going to go. Those who guess right get to be early-adopters, and might also get to put their weight behind those ideas if they pick their spots well. This part of why mainstream media is liberal, and always will be.  The profession selects for that quality quite competitively.  They get burned, of course, by the inevitable groundswell phenomenon of conservatives, who they do not sense well.  When something new comes up they at first find it impossible and ridiculous.  As it gains steam they can only demonise. Eventually they are able to partly isolate it and relegate it to a corner of the political discussion, even if it a large corner. They quarantine it.  Ronald Reagan, Rush Limbaugh, the Tea Party come to mind.

I will declare that there is nothing similar on the Right, because it has different problems: fighting the wrong battles, making arrogant declarations, and shooting their wounded for lack of Conservative Purity, variously defined. However, having said that, I expect someone will come up with an immediate counterexample.  And that's fine.  Glad to be wrong on this one.

Back to the original point: has anyone read anything reasonable on how these questions narrow to single symbolic issues so quickly, and how they go away?  It seems like a phenomenon that must apply to more than just 21st C America.


Christopher B said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Texan99 said...

Like you, I was deeply impressed by the forgiveness.

About the flag, while the whole discussion makes me tired, I have to admit that I would feel uncomfortable flying a confederate flag, knowing how many people inevitably would take it. In theory I reject the notion that someone else's possibly silly interpretation should bind me, but when it comes down to it, I simply don't want to be associated with a message that's sure to be read as "I'd love to see slavery come back" or even "states' rights are so important to me that I'd sacrifice the slaves' emancipation for it if necessary." And that's even though I'm skeptical of viewing the Civil War primarily as a fight over black rights and I'm downright disbelieving about any notion that Northerners are or have been less racist than Southerners. The fact remains that, one way or another, the war ended up being about slavery, and it's no laughing matter.

Nevertheless, there's something pitiful about the spectacle of cleansing the public forums of these scary symbols, like people who want to abolish Hallowe'en or Christmas trees. I mean, could we miss the point any more thoroughly?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Following that tangent: The war ended up being about slavery. I think that's the distinction. That was always the aim of some in the North, but not all. During the war, the preservation of the union was no joke. We forget now how much America was an experiment, and seen as fragile and susceptible to attack by more powerful nations if we didn't stick together. That Mexico or even Canada could get a European ally and conquer large amounts of either the North or South wasn't paranoia, it was reality. People saw the great dream going down the tubes. That's the backdrop for Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. We now falsely believe that would never have happened.

But with the Union preserved, no one actually did attack us, and that idea faded.

As for racism, my only good data comes from comparing NH, VA, and MA in the 1970's. Everything else is secondhand. But as for that, MA was less racist than Tidewater VA, but not much. NH was a rather ignorant or innocent tolerance because we had so few black people. I recall very few words against African-Americans my whole life here.

Texan99 said...

I recall virtually no words against African-Americans during my life in Texas, either. The first time I heard a public explosion of anything of that sort was in New York, and I was inexpressibly shocked. I thought it happened only in movies.

It's easy to forget how alarmed people were over the prospect of splitting up the union. It wasn't at all unimaginable at the time. Many people still took it for granted that the important units were the states, and that if they weren't satisfied, they obviously had the right to part ways. No matter what the conflict had been about, there would have been fear and anger over the danger of disunity, with hostile European powers waiting to pick off the weak remnants. Nevertheless, there's no getting around the fact that the issue the states ultimately parted ways on was slavery. Even if many in the North had no real intention of emancipating the Southern slaves at the beginning of the war, and even if many Confederate soldiers fought out of loyalty to their homes rather than a personal commitment to slavery, the North and South still were at odds over what place black people should have in American society. Race was central to the conflict, though the attitudes between the North and South didn't break down along simple saint-sinner lines.

terri said...


I attended a small christian college in Tennessee. I am originally form the Midwest and had lived my last two years of high school in Florida. I lived and worked full time in Tennessee for 5 years while completing my degree(I had to take a year off for financial reasons).

The North is not more racist than the South...the expressions of racism are simply different. The racism in the South is much more institutuinalized culturally and ever-present in some ways. People don't need to call out black people, because they are already segregated in unseen, unspoken ways. I knew people who wouldn't watch The Bodyguard, with Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner, because it depicted an inter-racial relationship. These were young college students in the 90's, not stuck-in-their-ways older people. The comments that people would make wouldn't be direct, ugly things, but a sort of accepted, unquestioned attitude.

The many southerners I went to school with, not just from TN, saw the confederate flag as part of their history. I was shocked to see it everywhere. I grew to ignore it over time and not to take it the way that I first did, as a symbol of slavery...perhaps because those who used it were so insistent that it meant something else. But...let's face's still the symbol of a slave-holding South. And yes the civil war was about "state's rights"...but the dispute was about whether they should have "state's rights" to own human beings as slaves if they wanted to. The civil war didn't "end up being about slavery."The long-standing problems between North and South were inextricably tied up with slavery because slavery impacted every facet of the South's economy and political life. It is not possible to compartmentalize slavery as merely one issue among many that led to the civil war. While many fought to preserve the Union, or to secede because of pride, honor, "state's rights" doesn't matter what the individual soldier's motivations were. The political cause for the war ties directly to slavery.

You ask if people could miss the point more thoroughly in reference to removing the flag and I am wondering what "point" you are referring to. One thing that people in the South never seemed to get, from my perspective, is that a lot of black people make up their populations. Black citizens who have to live and work with the confederate flag hung everywhere In these discussions about the flag, I can't think of one person who ever considered what they thought their black neighbors and fellow citizens felt about the flag. Their defense of it was always revolving around what they wanted, or their long-winded interpretations, explanations, and dismissals of any opposing opinions.

For the most part, black people just learned to ignore those flags, the same way I did. But why should they have to continue ignoring it? In that sense, removing the flag or making it socially uncomfortable to fly it, is A-OK in my book.

Personally, I am cynical about the politician's motives for these types of symbolic gestures. They only seem to make them when the shit hits the fan and they want to seem like they are doing something pro-active. It's pure appeasement from them. But it still needs to be done. The fact that there is a public that needs to be appeased is proof enough that it's time to say goodbye to the flag as a government endorsed symbol.

Texan99 said...

If I seemed to be suggesting that the North was more racist, I apologize; I don't think that. I think the entire country has a problem on the issue, which is expressed in different ways. You make a good point about the impact of segregation. In some ways, it makes racism worse, because the "other" remains irretrievably the other. On the other hand, in a relatively segregated society such as the one I grew up in (Houston in the 60s and 70s didn't have that much mixing in residential areas, nor in the suburban schools I attended), there is the advantage that people's attitudes about the "other" are largely theoretical, and they are capable of dealing with any real-live black people they meet as individuals, with respect and open-mindedness. That was not the impression I got when I visited New York, where the races were openly clashing: there the pattern was of patent group animosities infecting daily individual contact. Later, I had several black partners, some in our New York office and one in our (smaller) Houston office. Only the ones in New York had hair-raising stories to tell about other partners assuming they were the valet parkers and handing them their keys. That's a small sample and mere anecdote, but there was a noticeable difference in the response you got from New York and Houston personnel in telling those stories, and it didn't reflect a pattern of North-OK/South-racist.

Another anecdote: my cousins in a small town in South Carolina lived in a society that had only within the last few years (in the 60s) given up segregated waiting rooms in their father's dental practice. (And yet he did treat patients of both races, and gave them both excellent and caring service.) My cousins would have walked through fire rather than speak disrespectfully to an individual black person, but I will always remember my cousin's sudden discomfort as we were shopping casually in a shoe store in her town. She announced that we weren't supposed to be there, and we should leave. She had suddenly realized this was a "black" store. Never having heard of anything remotely approaching her concern, I had great difficulty in understanding her; it wasn't something she could discuss openly. She just needed to leave that instant, and needed me to join her. She would never have been impolite to anyone there, and I'm convinced her heart was free of malice, but separation was imperative at an instinctive level.

I don't doubt that there were people in Tennessee who got the hives over the idea of watching an interracial sexual relationship onscreen. Nor do I doubt that there were plenty of Northerners who would have lost their minds over the idea of their own children becoming involved in one. It's a problem--not universal but present in noticeable numbers--even among people who consider themselves free of ugly prejudice. Marriage and family are among the last places where ethnic divisions cease mattering, even among people of stainless good will. Again: it's easy to adopt the correct attitude toward a fictional representation, and harder to address the real ethnic insularity in one's own life, one being largely a symbol and the other hitting us where we live. (Cont'd)

Texan99 said...

(cont'd) So what I meant about "missing the point" was the concentration on symbols to the exclusion of addressing the underlying evil. There are people, for instance, who are in a state of high alarm about kids dressing up as goblins at Hallowe'en, on the ground that it's a kind of homage to the Devil, who are completely blind to really dangerous and damaging sin in their own lives or families. Granted that symbols can be important, it's sometimes easy to get so torqued over the symbol that we neglect the steps that would really address the underlying concern. Our lesson from the Holocaust, for instance, certainly includes "don't do anything as unspeakably offensive as to display a swastika," but if we lose sight of what else we should be doing to ensure "Never Again," the fight over the flag will become empty and petty. I don't know what went wrong in Roof's upbringing, but the Confederate flag is the least of my worries. I'd be more upset about whatever skinhead communities had been feeding him murderous propaganda, just as I'd worry what jihadist garbage had a pipeline to the hearts and minds of people like the Boston Marathon bombers.

And yet, even so, as I said, I wouldn't personally fly the Confederate flag, knowing it would be taken by some as an insult, even a threat. Some symbols have been damaged irretrievably.

Christopher B said...

We might be thinking along the same lines, AVI but I think I'd put it differently, and maybe with different emphasis. For the South succession was about being able to preserve slavery and for the North succession was, at least initially, worth going to war. The two wind up being inextricably linked. I think you're right that the war wound up being about slavery since after the first real bloodshed a lot of the North decided they could live with succession, and also right that we don't understand the fear that succession caused in people. There would have been people with living memory of the 1812-1814 war (whose bicentennials just passed with little more than nod) as well as the later wars in Mexico, and state border disputes that almost flared into armed conflicts. I think we're also somewhat blinded by the fact that as you said, the war ended up being about slavery, so the automatic assumption is that the South cared enough about that issue to go to war over it. But without binding slavery to succession I don't think either side would have fought.

dmoelling said...

You are totally correct AVI. The rapid and genuine expression of forgiveness by the church members took the wind out of the crisis mongers. Once they (and the citizens of Charlestown)took the racist terrorist meme down, the professional agitprop guys looked deep in their files for what could be used. The Stars and Bars came up right away. While not having a lot of ancillary benefits, it could be pushed without a huge reason out their to oppose the demand. The issue was simple to push, not demanding excessive nuance or explanation.

It will disappear from State flags just as quickly as it reappeared in the 1950s.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

terri, I was unfortunately writing from a northern-centric viewpoint when I wrote that the war "came to be about slavery." I think a majority of people in the north were opposed to slavery, but not many enough to go to war about. Even Lincoln said otherwise, and only came over time to decide that slavery was the one great issue of the war.

In the south, the evidence is that it was the main issue, though I will qualify that. As you note, for all the claim that "states' rights" was key, it is fair to ask "Okay, what other rights were they thinking of?" It seems too far fetched to say that the southern states seceded and confederated over "Hey! You can't tell us what to do!"

And yet...

And yet maybe that was enough for some. Most southerners did not own slaves or benefit from the economy including slavery - quite the opposite, as it drove down wages hugely. The idea that people derived psychological pleasure from having someone beneath them on the scale is fun to say, but hard to demonstrate. Plus, slavery was not in any way being abolished by Lincoln. There was simply the worry that as new states came in and tilted the balance, outlawing slavery was probably going to be on the table someday. That's not much to start from. Human beings may indeed be stupid enough to go to war just so that Our Guys and not Your Guys can be in charge of Our Guys. That was what was happening with the independence movements in Europe, after all. Perhaps the CSA was some cousin to French, Prussian, Polish, and other European revolutions of 1848. The idea that "We can do without them," and "They need the Port of New Orleans so we have them over a barrel," may have been enough. Sometimes people thinking that they can do something is enough to try it, even if there's no advantage.

Texan99 said...

Clearly the states' rights issue was triggered by a quarrel over slavery; that was the only issue at that time that the North happened to be trying to force the South to give up on. But that's not to say that the fight was more about slavery than about states' rights. The South believed, and apparently with excellent reason, that it was a question of principle, and that if the North had its way on this issue the South would never have the right to secede over any other important issue. Many people were willing to fight over the right of secession even if they were neither fervent slavers nor fervent abolitionists.

The North and South did differ sharply on slavery, no doubt about it. Where I think people often go wrong, however, is to conclude that the North therefore was not racist while the South was. I think there's practically zero evidence for that. Slavery was a distant issue for the North, something that could be abolished with virtually no immediate consequences for them; that doesn't mean blacks were seamlessly integrated into Northern life, or anything close.

Texan99 said...

Black libertarian view here:

He finds a double tragedy in the Civil War: the horror of slavery, and the loss of the dual-sovereignty principle. Then he concludes:

"That said, let’s be clear why state sovereignty was lost. It was lost because the southern states delegitimized it."

It might have been the single worst choice for an issue to test sovereignty over. They really screwed the pooch.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

My own comment, given rather experimentally, is convincing me the more I think about it. The American Revolution was largely a war of "You can't tell us what to do!" The colonies had become increasingly self-governing and resented George III trying to reassert control. The European revolutions were largely nationalist, and also had some element of simple self-assertion about them.

I'm not saying that's an especially mature response on either side, but perhaps secession was more driven by simple assertion of the right to self-governance than I had thought.

You can't make me!

Yes we can!

Those slogans don't inspire a lot of noble sentiment, so people wouldn't cop to them much.

Texan99 said...

I don't know--the contemporaneous accounts copped to them pretty readily, at least on the Southern side: something like "we'd hardly be honorable men if we let you push us around like that." On the North it probably was more a feeling of "you shouldn't rebel or desert" than precisely "we can make you," but it's not too far off.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

They called them "Johnny Reb" or "The Rebels."

Texan99 said...

My point exactly.