When Michael Eric Dyson was asked on MSNBC why Nike canceled the release of a pair of Independence Day-themed sneakers because their design featured the Betsy Ross flag, he answered with perfect moral certainty: “Because symbols matter. Why don’t we wear a swastika for July 4th?”
Presidential candidates agreed: the flag, popularly remembered as the first of the United States, was also flown by slaveowners, and therefore was disqualified from display. Beto O’Rourke: “I think it’s really important to take into account the impression that kind of symbol would have for many of our fellow Americans.” Julian Castro: “There are a lot of things in our history that are still very painful. The Confederate flag [still] flies in some places.”
Let’s talk about the Confederate flag. When it came down from the South Carolina statehouse in 2015 following the Dylan Roof murders, it felt like a good moment—one of those rare episodes of national unity where the majority could get together and articulate shared values. The Confederate flag stood for treason and slavery; it could no longer occupy a public place of honor. It was a Republican governor, Nikki Haley, who made that call, and conservatives followed her lead.
But it was never going to stop with just the Confederates.
Nike canceled the shoes because Colin Kaepernick—an ostensibly marginalized figure—had warned them that the Betsy Ross flag symbolized oppression. Prior to Kaepernick’s intervention, the flag symbolized nothing but America. But Kaepernick and allied activists argued that the flag is sometimes used by the Klan. Well, so is the Christian cross, and so is the current American flag. The Anti-Defamation League itself noted that the Betsy Ross flag “is not a thing in the white supremacist movement.” In 2013, enormous Betsy Ross flags hung prominently over the U.S. Capitol building, framing President Barack Obama as he delivered his second inaugural address. No one felt pain. No one felt oppression. No one saw swastikas.
This new anti-flag campaign does not seek to protect people from pain. Banning Betsy Ross provides no help to those who need it; it does nothing to address the real problems of yawning racial disparities in wealth and education. Instead it seeks something just as ancient, just as human: the exercise of power. Rather than redress a preexisting wrong, it invents a new wrong for the sole purpose of demanding that it be redressed. All the more power to the demanders. The Kaepernicks and Dysons of the world acquire even more influence and authority. Who else could invent our wrongs for us? How else would millions of cosmopolitan secularists exorcise their made-up demons and flagellate themselves for their unearned privilege without sacrificing any of it?
Symbolically, of course. Discovering the hateful nature of a long-loved symbol fulfills a core function of our era’s leftist politics: erecting a moral hierarchy that gives the pious at the top the satisfaction of scourging the heretics at the bottom. Actual majority opinion doesn’t matter. Nor even does black opinion, which does not and has never regarded the flag as offensive. All that is needed is the ritual invocation of an oppressor and a victim. A tiny group of activists will cobble together some pretextual arguments that such oppression is active. And then, remarkably, supposedly patriotic and reasonable progressives like Beto O’Rourke and Julian Castro will accord this pretext total moral authority.
After all, what else could they say? In 2019, what tool does a progressive have that allows him to disagree with a voice claiming oppression?
Symbols ultimately mean whatever we decide they mean. And that question of meaning will be answered by whoever has the moral authority to do the deciding. Today, the American Left’s central moral principle is the defense of victims from oppression. This creates an arbitrage opportunity: any minimally plausible claim that a symbol means oppression will be believed, because the moral penalties of disbelief are too high, and the socially constructed nature of symbols provide no solid ground for counterargument. Anyone looking for social power will exploit this opportunity mercilessly.
We were told that there were solid, neutral principles behind the pulling down of Confederate symbols. How could our country venerate those who fought against it? What could justify the pain felt by black Americans gazing on a flag that had been brought into being for the purpose of violently defending slavery? Those were—and are—good principles. But the pulling down of symbols wasn’t just about universal principles. It was also about power. That means there is nothing that can contain it.
The next thing it will eat will be the American Founding itself: Jefferson, Washington, the symbols on our money and buildings, our monuments, our flag, our anthem, the names of our cities, our Declaration of Independence. Minimally plausible arguments can be made that these things are tainted by slavery. These will come to sound like the one CNN political analyst Angela Rye offered when she said: “George Washington was a slaveowner, and we need to call slaveowners out for what they are. He wasn’t protecting my freedom. My ancestors weren’t deemed human beings to him. I don’t care if it’s a George Washington statue, or a Thomas Jefferson statue, or a Robert E. Lee statue. They all need to come down.” This line will soon become the mainstream position on the Left. Those attracted to it have everything to gain by wielding it; those who fear it have no legitimacy and no tools to resist it.
Neutral principles will be offered for the leveling. Moderates and a few conservatives will go along. It will come in waves: Jefferson will go before Washington, because Jefferson was the worse slaveowner, widely considered to have fathered children with Sally Hemmings, a slave who could not consent. Conservatives will hope it stops there—but really, the moral stain of owning a human being is bad enough, and Washington will soon follow. The distinctions will crumble, and it will all get thrown into the same pot, for the same meal, for the same people: the coterie of activists who now hold the whip hand over our social imagination, the ones with the moral authority to decide.
It’s already starting. This week, the city council of Charlottesville, the home of the University of Virginia and Monticello, voted unanimously to abolish their official recognition of Thomas Jefferson’s birthday as a holiday. Even if you believe that Jefferson’s treatment of his slaves disqualifies him from celebration, remember that this principle will never stay confined to him. Racial subjugation was endemic during the Founding. In some ways, it touched everything. Either we retain the ability to venerate the symbols and achievements of this period while remaining conscious of their failures, or else the whole thing will be placed on the ash heap.
Some ardently wish for the latter. In an article originally titled “Let’s Blow Up Mount Rushmore” before it was hastily re-titled to merely get rid of it, Vice editor Wilbert Cooper put it succinctly. “Pulling the historical figures of the past off the great mountain top back down to Earth where they shat, spit, pissed, f*cked, raped, murdered, died and rotted seems like important business for the country,” he said. “Monuments built by the state are not history,” he continued. “They are manifestations of power. They don’t tell you who, what, why, or how something happened. Instead, they just inform you who’s in control.”
Here are the costs of ceding control to people who think the American flag is a racist symbol and every monument to Washington should be dynamited into oblivion: we will no longer have a society. The wreckers have no replacement national narrative except one built on shame. It will never work. The only thing keeping our society together is the perception that we have things in common: that we tell the same stories, venerate the same people, hold the same ideals, remember the same history. It’s not a neat tale: our American project is full of disaster and disappointment. But it has held together, because it’s a story based in national pride—the only glue that precedent proves worthy of the job. A nation “held together” by shame is a science experiment.
The Kaepernicks and Dysons will tell you these stories are lies that make social justice impossible. Don’t believe it for a second. A self-confident national narrative is precisely what makes social justice possible. Our civil rights icons were proud to wave the flag and spoke of the Founders with reverence. They saw their movement as making good the original promise of the American Founding, a promise that had been incompletely realized. What was good about America, embodied in our glorious Founding, was sufficient to fix what was rotten about America—because the problem was that America was failing to live up to its own example. “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence,” Martin Luther King Jr. said at the Lincoln Memorial, “they were signing a promissory note.”
Nor do we need to lie about the Founders themselves. Most of what progressives claim about the Founders’ personal involvement with slavery is true. It is a stain. But the way we remember them is a simple question of framing. In their racism, the Founders were utterly ordinary. In their articulation of America’s ideals, they were extraordinary. Which should define their legacy? It’s not a hard call. It’s the call that Frederick Douglass, a man who was actually enslaved, made when he wrote that the Founders “were statesmen, patriots, and heroes…. With them, justice, liberty, and humanity were final, not slavery and oppression.”
The Left should understand the value of this story better than anyone. The robust welfare state they wish to construct depends on social trust, the fuel for collective action. People won’t allow their incomes to be redistributed away, or strangers welcomed into their land, unless they perceive that they have beliefs and ideals in common with the beneficiaries. The modern welfare state was invented in Europe, following wars that knit societies together and taught citizens to sacrifice for one another in a common enterprise. They were unified by stories. We’re slowly getting rid of ours. So why should we expect any success from our faltering attempts to build a sustainable social welfare system?
Those who want to continue to have a society in any meaningful sense of the word must continue telling the stories that have made that society possible. There is no room for compromise on this issue. Power will be held by someone. It will either be by those who can create a future for America or those who would consign it to never-ending conflict, shame alternating with hubris, radical leveling followed by hateful reaction.
The activists claim that’s exactly what they’re trying to avoid. Only by reckoning with our country’s painful racial history can we ever truly heal, they say. But their “reckoning” is like the Rapture—forever just out of reach. They would never acknowledge it as being achieved, because that would cede the power to punish. Acknowledging progress would mean things are getting better, but their power comes from telling their audience—largely wealthy white liberals—that things are just as bad as ever. They say they’re trying to save America from conflict, but their eschatology holds, in the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates, that racism “is a pervasive force both native and essential to the body [of America]” and white supremacy “a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it.” The result of this thinking is not a “reckoning,” but a racial forever war.
Waving the Betsy Ross flag is the perfect act of resistance to the forever war. It should be waved in affirmation of our ability to tell stories about ourselves that inspire and unify, that our symbols can stand for the good without erasing the bad. If we conservatives can’t conserve that possibility, then we aren’t worthy of the name.
Nicholas Phillips is a writer and law student based in New York. Follow him on Twitter @nicholas_c_p.