I’m bothered by the fact
You cannot take it back
It goes on record and multiplies at that
Subtlety under political correctness is out. So, too, complexity of character. To be politically correct one must also firmly believe that people do not change: If they were the least racist, sexist, homophobic forty years ago, they must still be so now.
Eh, I don’t think that’s true. The same double-standards of tribal solidarity apply here, as always. The rhetorical jazz hands of justification aside, Sarah Jeong and Joy Reid’s social media histories, for example, didn’t ruin them because they’re both members of the right tribe. They were allowed to “learn” and “grow” when someone less well-connected or less useful to other people’s ambitions (Razib Khan, Kevin Williamson) would have been abandoned. “Belief” can be as flexible as a yogi in service to political maneuvering. What’s more interesting, in my view, is to wonder why so many people go along with this charade. We all know better. We’ve all made off-color jokes and entertained scandalous thoughts. Not one of us would survive the Intersectional Inquisition with our reputations intact, even, or especially, those who are most loudly and fervently denouncing others. So why do we pretend that a decades-old photo or a disowned remark say anything significant about a person’s character? Laziness? Cowardice? Both?
Like quite a few people in this area, my next-door neighbor has a Confederate flag flying underneath his American one. That alone would be enough to make him persona non grata in the eyes of most bien-pensants, should he ever rise to their attention. But he and his family are good people. He’s given us much free advice and free labor when we’ve needed it. After every major snowstorm here, he gets on his small tractor first thing in the morning and goes up and down the road, clearing people’s driveways for them. When we had the severe ice storm in November, he and his son were awake for more than 24 hours straight, helping to chainsaw and remove all the downed trees in the area. Years ago, when a corner of the embankment by our bridge washed out, he had one of his crew come over with a backhoe and spend several hours digging out the creekbed and filling in the collapsed area (refusing to even allow us to reimburse him for the gas). When we offered to pay, or even feed, the guy doing the work, he told us no. Our neighbor, he said, had been the man willing to give him a job when he was fresh out of jail for drug possession, so as far as he was concerned, he was just paying that kindness forward.
I don’t know why he flies the Confederate flag. I don’t know if it’s just a generic expression of affection for rural Virginia or something more sinister. If I wanted to know, I’d have to ask him, but of course, I really don’t care. I know enough about him to have a sense of his character without having to rely on superficial clues. Again, we all know people like this, and we all know better than to entertain snap judgments and assume the worst. The most corrosive thing about this trend of replacing the personal with the political is that it destroys precisely that sort of nuance which allows people to forgive and trust each other without expecting perfection. In our laziness and cowardice, we willfully forget that most people are too complex to be reduced to a snapshot or a soundbite, even though our complicity won’t protect us when it’s our turn.
“Do not imagine that you will save yourself, Winston, however completely you surrender to us. No one who has once gone astray is ever spared. And even if we chose to let you live out the natural term of your life, still you would never escape from us. What happens to you here is forever. Understand that in advance. We shall crush you down to the point from which there is no coming back. Things will happen to you from which you could not recover, if you lived a thousand years. Never again will you be capable of ordinary human feeling. Everything will be dead inside you. Never again will you be capable of love, or friendship, or joy of living, or laughter, or curiosity, or courage, or integrity. You will be hollow. We shall squeeze you empty, and then we shall fill you with ourselves.”
“They can’t get inside you,” she had said. But they could get inside you. “What happens to you here is forever,” O’Brien had said. That was a true word. There were things, your own acts, from which you could never recover.
February 15, 2019 @ 1:44 am
Let’s see if you can entertain this without rolling your eyes at the hackneyed invocation of Nazis so often plaguing modern discourse:
If it were a swastika flag your neighbor were flying under the American one, would you be as nonchalant? And please don’t tell me they aren’t the same thing–both symbolized (and still do) opposition to the values of the U.S.
I am of course in complete agreement with the *intention* of this post. Symbols by themselves cannot hurt you unless you choose to let them. But if a sweet, kind and generous individual who adorned themselves regularly in iron crosses and SS symbols were your neighbor, are you truly telling me that wouldn’t give you pause?
February 15, 2019 @ 6:18 am
Sorry, but they’re not the same thing. The Confederate battle flag has morphed into a more generic symbol of “Southernness” in a way that the swastika never will. Yes, that’s vague and ambiguous and resists clear, precise definition, but it’s true.
February 16, 2019 @ 7:39 am
If half the country or culture think the opposite, then it isn’t “true” for them. So the ambiguity is being used as a dodge.
February 16, 2019 @ 1:20 pm
It’s like the linguistic arguments between prescriptivists and descriptivists — you can insist that both societies were founded on racial hierarchies and slavery and therefore a symbol of one is logically equivalent to a symbol of another. I agree, that makes logical sense. However, the fact remains that the use of the Confederate flag has become more generic. I’ve even seen people in Canada and Brazil adopt it as somehow being representative of either rural life or just as a generic symbol of rebelliousness. You can insist they’re wrong all you want, just like you can insist that it’s wrong for people to end sentences with prepositions or to use the singular “they.” Nonetheless, they do it. What I see around me tells me that popular usage is trying to reclaim the symbol of the Confederate flag (whereas I have never once seen anyone try to claim that a Nazi flag was anything other than a symbol of white supremacy). Whether it will be successful in the long term or not, who knows?
The “intention” of this post is to emphasize the contrast between the shallow, facile ways of knowing and judging people on social media and the ambiguity and complexity of real life. People in the flesh are often contradictory, even incoherent, in a way that denies easy classification. People on social media insist that you can tell everything important about a person from one picture or one sentence fragment. Arguments over whether the Confederate flag is or isn’t irredeemable proof of racism is exactly the sort of pointless exercise suited to Twitter. As I said, when you actually know a person, you realize how abstract and irrelevant it is to put so much stock in superficial clues.
February 17, 2019 @ 4:08 pm
A coworker of mine once supplied me, a black man, jumper cables I didn’t have at the time. I looked in the cab of his truck for the first time, and saw a number of iron crosses, and even a Nazi flag sticker. He saw me looking at it and shrugged. “Don’t mean nuthin’,” he said. “People get squirrely ’bout things that don’t matter.” Another (former) coworker actually had a tattoo of a blood drop cross (which he obviously had to conceal at work). We spoke at length about boxing, and his favorite boxer was Marvin Hagler.
YOU may not have seen those symbols used for anything but white supremacy, but I certainly have. And this is where your position seems arbitrary. Why are you willing to accept one contradiction over another? White supremacists are currently attempting to rebrand themselves, to “reclaim” Western values, insisting they don’t hate non-whites, only that they want to “preserve their heritage.” In some cases, they use Nazi rhetoric (and iconography) to illustrate it. The majority have never harmed anyone, have families and children, and some of them are even charitable. If your position is that I should also treat these people as decent, you’d be on solid ground. But you don’t. Somehow, Nazi symbols are different, despite that I’ve demonstrated otherwise.
*Of course* real people are complex. It’s folly, however, to castigate people’s reflexive derision for one type of symbol, but be in complete agreement with reactions to another. Illustrating this was *my* intention.
February 17, 2019 @ 5:41 pm
And this is where your position seems arbitrary. Why are you willing to accept one contradiction over another?
We may be talking past each other here. Let me try putting it this way: I don’t have any affection for the flag or Southern identity in general, despite being a lifelong Southerner. If the first thing I see about a guy is that he sports Confederate flag symbols on his clothes, truck, etc., of course I’d have the thought in mind, “This guy might be a racist redneck.” In my neighbor’s case, I actually know him well enough that I’m confident he’s not.
That part of the post is incidental. I didn’t bring it up in order to argue that people shouldn’t generally assume that people who proudly sport the stars ‘n’ bars might be racists. I brought it up to emphasize the shallowness of virtual reality. Of course it’s fine to have first impressions and rules of thumb, as if we could even do otherwise. Social media, though, has made it increasingly popular to judge and attack people based on nothing but vague impressions. Even worse, people seem to be increasingly uninterested in replacing those impressions with details and nuances. They’d rather just create their own narrative out of interchangeable stereotypes.