All Flags Lowered: The Decline of Common Sense, Fair Play, and Grown-Up Composure


The few days since the “flag flap” already illustrate how far the hysteria reigning in our society is from confining itself to a single issue.

I was not surprised when, on a whim, I went shopping online for a Confederate flag and discovered that merchandisers everywhere had sold out.  Let me explain.  My intent was not to hoist the Stars and Bars in my front yard.  I can’t afford a private security guard—and my property was vandalized years ago when I merely displayed a couple of signs urging a “no” vote on a school bond issue.  (It turned out that the teachers’ union had sent armies of students all over town to do the dirty work.)  Something in me, though, “rebelled” at the notion that, as an American citizen, I was henceforth to be denied access to a historically rich symbol that many of my ancestors had held in honor.  What if I simply wanted the flag as an historical artifact?  As a cartoon posed the other day (all too plausibly to be funny, in my opinion), are we now to be submitted to background checks when attempting to buy anything of Confederate provenance?  Is NSA already on my case because I googled “purchase Confederate flag” yesterday?

There are so many issues colliding in this latest train wreck of “offended sensibilities” that I can scarcely sort them out. (The staccato pace of my previous post, I’m afraid, clearly places me among the hyperventilating).  Freedom of speech is surely the most important political concern.  As I wrote in that previous post, the matter of renouncing traditional symbols because a certain activist coterie chooses perversely to interpret them in the most pejorative way possible isn’t going to end with one flag.  I had intended to warn that the Stars and Stripes itself must soon follow, since revisionist “historians” blame the European founders whose system and culture our national flag represents for exterminating indigenous peoples… and, lo, what meets my eyes this morning in the headlines?  Louis Farrakhan has declared in a DC church that “we need to put the American flag down.  Because we’ve caught as much hell under that as the Confederate flag.”  I never supposed that my warning would be facetious… but I also didn’t think I would be so far behind right out of the gate.

The demonization of the Crucifix, as well, is already a fait accompli, if one surveys stories from around the country about school children being sent home for wearing or having imprinted on their clothing some such insignia.  Question: what if your tot or teenager is exhorted by teachers to come to class tomorrow draped in some kind of rainbow tee shirt that expresses solidarity with gay marriage?  Refusal to comply will be received as active hostility to Human Decency.  Do you think this sort of thing, too, remains in the realm of fantasy for the time being?  My son’s college forced the whole baseball team to model a pale tee reading, “Strike out sexual assault,” during warm-ups before a game.  An all-campus assembly discussing the virtue of self-control, the squalor of drunkenness, and the immorality of hook-ups would be altogether too adult—a distant journey in the Way-Back Machine (and this is a Catholic campus, by the way).  No; let’s print tee-shirts—and let’s have male athletes, especially, wear them.

Here I blunder into a second issue which may not be less important, but is certainly less easily defined: behavior modification.  What we may and may not wear, what we may and may not say, what we may and may not fly at the masthead… we are all routinely treated now like toddlers incapable of grasping moral concepts, and whose conduct must therefore be conditioned by gold stars or time-outs.  The infantilization of our entire culture in this manner betrays a rather advanced contempt in our ruling elite for the human spirit.  We are pawns to be moved about by masterminds, robots to be programmed by engineers.  We are granted no leeway to argue our case and explain our dissent: our reasons are uninteresting, because the only possible motive for any human behavior is conditioning.  The correct response to wrong conditioning isn’t to permit the malfunctioning robot to babble his muddled heresies: it’s to reprogram him.  Those who own a Confederate flag must have their hands slapped.  Those who are male and in excellent physical shape must be advised that they are always and only to serve as partners at the female’s discretion.

You may well throw up a hand to stop me and ask, “Where do all these imperatives come from if we’re only products of conditioning?  If none of us knows any moral directive other than what has been programmed into him, why is the progressive elite’s programming more proper than anyone else’s?”  Ah, my naïve friend… but don’t you see that the elitist is guided by higher inspiration!  His ways are not ours.  We must simply obey as he indicates.  In a cosmos that has no more gods in heaven, he is a god come to earth.

This patent, disdainful rejection of logic and fairness—this overweening arrogance—explains how we come to be treated behavioristically like white rats in the clinician’s Skinner Box… but it might also be considered a distinct issue.  If one side of the situation has to do with us ordinary citizens as vile little tokens in some kind of board game, the other must address the sickness of soul that drives our handlers to abuse us so haughtily.  In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, I think one of the most consequential implications of O’Brien’s torturing Winstion into a profession that two and two are five is the insane arrogance of crusading political power.  No, two and two are NOT five, and never will be; but the elitist insists on being able to take the most fundamental components of reality and rearrange them.  “If you want young men to treat young women with respect, then why do you encourage casual, purely hedonistic sexual encounters on your campus?”  Administer electric shock!  “Do not touch unless she says to touch.  Touch only where she says you may.”  “Most Southerners didn’t own slaves, though Ulysses Grant himself was a slaveowner; slavery was indexed to the South’s agrarian economy in conflict with the North’s industrial economy, and the tariffs that the North imposed….”  Administer electric shock!  “Repeat after me: the Civil War was fought to free the slaves.”

Speaking of sexual harassment and the Clockwork Orange approach to manners… yet another civilizational land mine in all this “flag” business lurks in how guilt is insanely subjectified.  Infractions, that is, are not to be determined by objective evidence: they occur when a party already endowed with some kind of minority status registers a painful sensation. In sexual harassment law, the plaintiff has a case if she thinks she has a case: the threshold of criminalization is her feeling that she has somehow been violated.  I’ll never forget a brochure circulated at an academic workshop.  On its cover, a young woman in a very short and tight-fitting skirt was bending over right beside the desk of a young man who, of course, went saucer-eyed.  We may assume that the woman catches some of this gape out of the corner of her eye.  The subtext was that she has just been harassed, if she finds the attention “predatory”.  The Confederate flag is apparently that ogling gaze.  If someone protests, “That makes me feel like you want to enslave me!” then—by golly, that’s just what the flag means.  Your protests to the contrary mean nothing: you were not the offended party.

If my father had been killed in the South Pacific by the Japanese, would I have a right to rage against a big red happy face because it reminded me of the Rising Sun on a kamikaze Zero’s wing?  Certain self-appointed advocates of the Native American community have lately decided to fulminate about teams with names like Redskins, Braves, and Apaches.  What possible end is there to such deranged hyper-touchiness?  Since any gesture or utterance can potentially offend anyone with an unhealthily active imagination, at what point do we recover our right to speak?  Will not silence, indeed, run the risk of being interpreted as a snub?  What future awaits a society that indulges itself in such lunatic debauches of sensitivity?

As an educator, I have to lament both of these degenerate trends: i.e., the mutilation of complex truths to fit a bumper sticker or a sound bite and the privileging of gut reaction over reasoned response.  In the Confederate flag’s case, I particularly resent the evidentiary reductio ad mendacium because it leads straight to hysteria. Exaggerated details and suppressed qualifiers have spun a teleromance that foments civil discord and debases our collective intelligence.  This is happening to us all over the place. There isn’t even a ghost of consistency flitting through the claptrap that the elitist paideia offers our kids in schools—and force-feeds to us through useful idiots in the propaganda ministry (a.k.a. the broadcast media).  If a redneck dropout with a racist tattoo sports a Confederate flag in the cab of his pick-up, then that’s an accurate reflection of the flag’s significance to the general population.  But when ISIS beheads innocents in the name of Islam or Hezbollah incinerates a bus-load of people to please Allah, only an imbecile or a racist would imagine that “true Muslims” are in any way implicated!  When Union forces launched their attack against the South, they did so only to abolish slavery; but everything those same troops did out West after the war was instead motivated by an insatiable lust for genocide.  Whenever a serial killer is executed, our society demonstrates to the world just how barbaric its cultural values are; but when a fully viable eight-month-old fetus has his or her brains sucked out by a syringe, we are displaying our concern for women.

I could go on and on: the cancer that is rotting our political and moral fiber hasn’t left a nerve or a bone untouched.  But perhaps a suitable stopping place would be the black community itself.  I’m convinced that most of our older neighbors of slave descent (for that matter, all of us had enslaved ancestors if you go far enough back) know good and well that the Confederacy didn’t mount resistance against the Union simply to keep some big-ass plantation running.  The younger ones, however, are lost to any such nuanced understanding of the nation’s history—and therein lies the best argument for surrendering the flag as a public symbol: not that it ever represented a vigorous pro-slavery agenda to those who died under it, but that it now represents the failure of our educational system to characterize the past truthfully.  We can’t undo that failure on this battlefield.  Whether an anemic, polling-addicted, ever-retreating Republican Party will eventually find an element of our cultural heritage that it’s willing to defend from slander is highly dubious.  If, therefore, I say now that it’s time to furl the flag, it certainly isn’t in order to elect more slimy gastropods like Lindsey Graham and John Boehner.  It’s simply to admit that we have more recent history being just as grotesquely caricatured whose salvaging is more urgent.

For why quibble now, after all, about the origins of a war that ended a century and a half ago? Why, when so many infinitely more risky wars loom on our near horizon?  Indeed, I should like to ask any of my black brethren receptive to the likes of Farrakhan this question.  Have they not considered what degradation they bring upon themselves in coddling a slavery-fixation the way Saint-Exupery describes Arabic beggars as soiling their open ulcers to excite more pity?  No one alive today had a parent—or even, probably, a grandparent—who was born into slavery in the South.  Saint-Exupery encountered slaves all the time, however, as he flew his mail routes over the Sahara.  Many of the same regions practice slavery to this day—and their practice is not a product of capitalism, European republicanism, or Christianity, Mr. Farrakhan.  What exactly do you think you’re protesting?

A Scot like me might discover with a little research that his ancestors were victims of the Highland Clearances at about the time General Lee was surrendering; and those wretches were not hoeing rows under the whip’s crack, but being “freed” of their land to freeze and starve. By the thousand, and the tens of thousands. (Come to think of it, Union troops “freed” the slaves in much the same way, pillaging every silver spoon, commandeering every mule, and slaughtering every hog along their way. Not much remained to eat by 1866, for black or for white.)

Should I therefore demand reparations of the Brits, in a high lather of ethnic solidarity?  Should I insist that no imported car bear an imprint of the British flag anywhere on its chassis?  Should I fume, perhaps, that rogue ships from Britain often joined Yankee craft in importing slaves to the South—which eventually caused the destruction of my ancestors’ new homeland?  Is every misery in my life the fault of someone else, and due a fat recompense from everyone remotely involved?

What has any of this to do with the choices we make today?  How sad, to be thus mired in events that no living relative can even recall to us, and that may indeed never have happened as they have been represented by provocateurs who stand to profit greatly from our unrest!

The racist—the genuine racist, with his fully developed ideology of hierarchy (as opposed to a dull-witted bigot)–will say that the white man must bear the burden of his darker cousins, who are and will always be child-like in their inability to hear reason and to rule their passions.  How disappointing, to see grown human beings choose to fit themselves tightly into that racist’s mold!

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