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Leonard Pitts Rings The Bell

Day by day, it amazes me more and more that people can say the most unintelligent things and cause the air to be putrid with their rancor. And other days that I get a real breath of fresh air. Today I was treated to a real burst of oxygen in the form of Leonard Pitts’ column [1] (dated March 2, at the Miami Herald).

Pitts’ column was in response to a letter from the editor of a high school newspaper who had addressed the issue of displays of the Confederate Battle Flag, which he (the High School Editor) considered to be “an extremely offensive symbol”. As apparently does Pitts. As, frankly, do I.

Mind you, the topic itself is certainly cogent and after several news items during the Presidential Campaign, very current. Pitts mentions the challenges and successes this young writer has experienced in dealing with those in his school that still promote the former reign of the Confederacy.

What’s wrong with the Symbol?

I’ll sit on this part of the topic a bit. I believe the Civil War was complicated and about more than just the Slavery issue. But there is no doubt that regardless of whether it was about economics or states’ rights, fundamental to the cause of the South was the belief that they should retain the right to buy, sell, trade and own human beings. This stain does not belong on the South alone since many owned slaves in the North as well for decades.  But the thirst to retain this right and treat slaves as nothing better than animals, typically killing slaves who try to escape or rebel (or who can no longer work), to deprive other humans of the same rights our forefathers had fought so nobly to achieve for the slave-owners themselves, causes one to consider the key symbol of Southern Succession to be forever tarnished and branded as a symbol of shame. Pitts rightly places this symbol up against the Nazi Swastika, and both are often used by those that speak hate and vileness, almost always being whites who propose white superiority.

It is interesting that the vast number of contemporary Germans seem to consider the Swastika a shameful reminder of the past. A strong sense of history and honor tends to bring emotional guilt to even multiple generations of Germans. Not so for much of the South, which is somewhat understandable. There are real differences between Nazi Germany and the Confederate South. The deliberate extermination of millions of Jews and others will always feel overwhelming compared to the restrained freedoms of American Slaves, as well as the mistreatment of African Americans in the century that followed. The devastating difference between the two does not, however, make the experience of African Americans any better, nor the history of the South and its inability to turn to a righteous path any more palatable.

Many in the South do not see the Confederate Battle Flag as a symbol of shame because they fail to see the work, decisions, and direction of Southern leadership in the course of Slavery and Succession as wrong. They lost a war, but that did not make them wrong (I would agree with this point, by the way… winners aren’t always right). Germans lost a war and could see what was wrong with the government. The South lost a war and saw only that the victors were intent on taking away everything that was important to them. Their land, their slaves, their means to live. This flag is part of the little they feel they have left of the glory of the Confederacy that was (to them) right in what it promoted, simply snatched away by hypocritical Northerners.

It is well and good for us to show the Confederate Flag as a sign of hate, evil, and disrespect for our fellow humans. I agree with that. But the symbol is not what we need to fight against. It is the ideology that it represents, an ideology that says some people are just better than others. That includes the fact that I cannot put myself up as better than someone who cheers for that flag, or the Swastika. We will never be able to fight those ideas by fighting the symbols. We need to deal with the ideas themselves, and not through shame, but through reasonable discourse.

How do we make a difference?

This is the part of Pitts’ column where I felt I could really inhale deeply.

Pitts addresses three popular defenses used by supporters of the Confederate South, which you will have to go to the Miami Herald site [1] to see. What he ends up doing then is stating that which is becoming more and more prevalent: arguments are won not persuasively, but bombastically.  Polite, intelligent discourse now gives way to shouting, sniping, personal attacks and threats.  Of course, that’s the easy way.  And the easy way comes in many forms.

The fact is, we tend to think we can solve problems like this by hiding the reminders, like these symbols. That doesn’t work. Bigotry, hate, resentment will be there even if unseen.

We tend to think we can use laws to make people behave and think exactly the way we think is right. That doesn’t work either. You cannot use laws to change the human heart.

We tend to think in terms of “us and them”. That doesn’t work either. Frequently, we all have a hand in where we are, especially as a nation. There was nothing particularly noble about the North trying to impose abolition on the South.  England managed it without a war decades earlier. This was not a stain on the South, but a stain on a nation that had failed to even face this evil against mankind for over 80 years, instead dancing around it in hopes that it would not tear the country apart. It was about the nation.

We tend to think “our view” of the world and truth is the correct view. And in some respects there are clearly tangible truths (those that can be demonstrated empirically) and intangible truths (things we believe, like te existence of God, political positions, or feelings of love). Some of the the intangible truths can change. They change best and most effectively when they change in the person after thoughtful consideration or by well-reasoned persuasion. Laws can force people to behave a certain way, but not to believe something to be true. And, as Pitts asserts, there will be those that simply will not be persuaded nor will bring a discernible argument for consideration, but will instead express their frustration at being unable to justify themselves (or admit to having been persuaded), may lash out.

Part of the Mission of The Conservative Reader is to provide a place for just such discourse. A place where all, of any perspective, can voice their opinion and hear others. I come here as much to be persuaded as to persuade others. How about you?

Hat tip to my wife, who pointed out Mr. Pitts’ column in today’s print edition of the Des Moines Register [2].