April 17, voters in Mississippi will decide whether to change their
state flag, which currently features prominently
I was born
in Texas, grew up believing and still believe that
Robert E. Lee was one of the finest men ever to draw breath, and
whenever as a boy I fell asleep half-dreaming about the Civil War,
always wore a gray uniform. My father's parents were from Mississippi
Mathiston and Eupora and my parents and I are Texans,
and in all my years growing up and playing army I can never remember
choosing to be a Yankee rather than a Rebel. The Confederate flag,
I can honestly say, has never had any racially charged meaning for
And yet I have
concluded, sadly, that, if I were voting on April 17, I would vote
to have it removed from the Mississippi state flag. I also hasten
to add that, not only am I a Southerner, but a conservative. But
here are my reasons.
have to recognize that the meaning of the Confederate flag is ambiguous.
It is certainly true that, to many, like me, the flag can signify
simply our Southern heritage. But it was also used to signify, most
recently, opposition to desegregation and, to some, it still signifies
continued racism and the opposition to equal rights for blacks and
It may be true
that many blacks are hypersensitive on the matter quick to
condemn any expression of Southern pride, in any context,
public or private but it is not unreasonable for them to
object here. Why, black Mississippians may reasonably ask, should
the state go out of its way to fly officially a flag that it knows
many will salute for bad reasons?
a memorial to the Confederate dead or naming a school after Stonewall
Jackson is different, by the way. It is not reasonable to view those
actions as giving a thumbs-up to racism. But deciding in 2001 to
keep the Confederate flag as part of the state flag can reasonably
be read as a deliberate affront.
others as you would have them do unto you." Ask yourself: If
you were black, would you want your state flag to feature prominently
the flag of the Confederacy?
Try to imagine
if the shoe were on the other foot: That you were black, or that
it was whites who had been slaves. Would you feel you shared the
heritage that was the disputed part of the flag?
Does it make
a difference that those shouting most loudly and obnoxiously for
the flag's removal are, not to put too fine a point on it, demagogic
jerks who, if they were really serious about improving the lives
of African Americans, would aim their efforts elsewhere? That is,
should the forces of political correctness be opposed on principle,
even though they may actually be correct in a particular situation?
This has become
an important part of the dynamic here. Many folks would happily
vote to remove the flag or, even better, would never vote
to have it on the state flag in the first place if we were starting
now on a clean slate but cannot bear to hand the race-baiting
demagogues and their ilk a victory.
But this reasoning
is, I am afraid, self-defeating. In the long run, it costs conservatives
their credibility if they choose to be on the wrong side just because
of who is on the right side.
There is bad-little-boyism
at work here, too. Flying the Confederate flag is like hitting your
silly martinet of a grade-school teacher in the back of her head
with a spitball. It is teasing someone when you know that the response
will be wildly disproportionate which is, of course, a big
part of the fun. But all this is an explanation, not a justification.
And here is
the clinching epiphany I had the other day when I was helping my
son with his history homework. The assignment was about the treatment
of American Indians. It is certainly true, I told my son, that Indians
were badly treated. But those wrongs cannot be undone, and it is
pointless to dwell as many modern-day Indian activists do
The same is
true for the way blacks have been treated. Yes, slavery was wrong,
but that is history now, and we must move forward as one nation,
not try to go our separate, balkanized, grievance-group ways.
is all well and good for Indians today to be proud of their Indian
heritage and blacks to be proud of their African-American heritage.
But that pride becomes objectionable when it eclipses their pride
in being Americans and is used to drive a wedge between them and
their fellow citizens.
But then it
struck me: Isn't all this rightly said to Southerners, too? Perhaps
the South was right in its argument about states' rights, perhaps
the Yankees were money-grubbing and brutal, and surely one can be
proud of the gallantry with which Southerners fought. But we have
to move on, there's no point in dwelling on past grievances, and
certainly one should be an American first and a Son or Daughter
of the Confederacy only second.
Confederates for Indians. Yes, Confederates were brave. Yes, they
suffered enormously. Yes, they were just fighting for their way
of life and what they believed in. But they lost, and as a nation
we can't change that or be sorry that they lost, any more than we
can give the country back to the Indians or wish that they had won.
a conservative think if the NAACP insisted that Mississippi include
some "black pride" logo in its flag, or a Choctaw activist
wanted to replace the battle flag with some Native American pennant?
He would rightly reject such demands, pointing out that our coins
say E pluribus unum: Out of many, one.
One last, important
point to consider: The cost of flipping the bird may be high. One
of the principal arguments used to justify racial preferences is
the absurd claim that America is a deeply racist society. I don't
for a minute believe that a vote for the old flag in Mississippi
proves that most Mississippians are racist, let alone that most
Americans are, but, believe me, that will be the claim.
Over the next
year or two, there is a good chance that a stake will be driven
through the heart of racial preferences. The Supreme Court has just
agreed to hear a case involving preferences in the contracting context,
where the lower courts have generally struck them down, and there
have also been a number of recent rulings ending preferences in
university admissions and, to a less extent, employment. California,
Washington, Texas, and Florida have all moved away from such discrimination
in recent years. Preferences have always been divisive and hard
to justify, and they are becoming more so with every tick of the
argument is a powerful weapon against those who would institutionalize
identity politics and multiculturalism. But it loses much of its
power if, in the same breath, we say it is all right to fly the
Confederate battle flag over Mississippi. Changing the flag is the
right course for exactly the same reason that the NAACP is
so often these days headed in the wrong direction: It seeks to unite
rather than divide.
So change the
flag, but make the point that it is being lowered for a larger principle
that many of its detractors won't like: There is one America. No
special treatment or privileges for anyone, no living in the past,
no celebration of diversity or grievances. We are a forward-looking
country, and we are all Americans first.