Thursday, January 31, 2008

Siegel on the Stars and Bars

My good friend Mike Siegel takes on the Confederate Flag in South Carolina

Mike makes two observations:

(1) Even if the Civil War wasn’t “about” slavery, the issue was so entrenched with the war, the distinction is academic. Without slavery, there would have been no war.

(2) It doesn’t matter if blacks’ offense at the Confederate flag is rational or not. The flag is supposed to represent all the people of the state. If some fraction finds the flag offensive — whether their offense is reasonable or not — it should be changed.

It's pretty hard to argue that the Civil War wasn't about slavery, especially in South Carolina. Consider the following snippet from South Carolina's Articles of Secession:

The Constitution of the United States, in its fourth Article, provides as follows:

"No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up, on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due."

This stipulation was so material to the compact, that without it that compact would not have been made. The greater number of the contracting parties held slaves, and they had previously evinced their estimate of the value of such a stipulation by making it a condition in the Ordinance for the government of the territory ceded by Virginia, which now composes the States north of the Ohio River.

This is the first substantive issue raised in the document, and it recurs throughout. To me, that says that it was the most important issue on their minds.

On the other hand, I don't think that the display of the confederate flag today is about slavery or even racism. I think it stems more from the fact that all people, regardless of their station in life, want to believe that they are descended from distinguished and honorable forebears. I expect there is no history so infamous that the descendants of the perpetrators will not try to whitewash it, or failing that suppress it.

I'm generally sympathetic to this impulse. It seems unjust to hold people responsible for events in which they had no say. However, distorting the historical record is the wrong way to deal with the problem. The right way involves a frank admission of what happened in the past, a recognition that we are not our ancestors, and a resolve that we will be better than they were. That, however, is a lot of verbiage, so maybe we need a name for the concept that is a little punchier, something like "Truth and Reconciliation". It has kind of a ring to it.

That said, I do have to object to the "whether they are reasonable are not" comment. Surely what we mean by an "unreasonable" objection is that it should not be heeded. If not, then I wonder, what exactly is the difference between a reasonable and an unreasonable objection? Furthermore, rejecting any standard of reasonableness when "some fraction of the population" objects to something seems like bad policy. Surely there exists a fraction that is too small or an objection that is too wacky to merit serious consideration. The point is that that's not the case here. Trying to weasel on whether or not the objections are reasonable only weakens the argument.

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