If people tried to convey other messages that way, Hallmark would totally have to rethink its business model.
“Why are you giving me this card with a shaken baby on it?” your sister would ask. “Because that is the LAST thing I want to happen to your beloved newborn,” you would answer, smiling guilelessly.
“Are you allergic to peanuts?” people would ask, seeing your “I MIGHT BE ALLERGIC TO PEANUTS” t-shirt.
“No, no,” you’d say. “I just really like peanuts and the shirt said ‘Peanuts’ on it.”
“Why would you — never mind.”
Another rationale you hear for flying a Confederate battle flag is, “This is okay because we are remembering what happened SELECTIVELY.”
I think about the war as being about taxation, people tell news reporters. About states’ rights. So it’s fine, because that’s what I decided it was about.
But history doesn’t work like that. There is objectively a right and a wrong answer. Some things happened. Other things did not happen. And you can actually determine why they did or did not. If we suddenly have decided that we only are required to remember the parts of history we approve of, I am definitely going to contest my AP U.S. History score.
The conclusion that the war was about slavery is pretty inescapable from everything everyone said at the time, from South Carolina’s December 1860 declaration of causes of secession, complaining that (“A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that ‘Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,’ and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction…”) to Lincoln’s Second Inaugural (“One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it…”).
But somehow, if you personally don’t think so, you can handwave the historical record away.
This doesn’t happen in other contexts. You don’t see people painting giant murals of Hitler on the sides of buildings and shrugging, “No, no, it’s okay, I’m remembering him as a pet owner.” Nobody names his daughter HOORAY FOR STALIN on the grounds that “No, to me, Stalin’s a poet.” “I want to convey that I oppose most of what the Nazis believed in; is there a swastika for that?” No. No there isn’t. This is obviously silly. Yes, Hitler was reportedly nice to dogs and Stalin liked to write poems — even history’s most notorious mustached villains did not spend all their time twirling their mustaches — but this is clearly missing the point. You don’t get to pick and choose what to remember. History happened.
Look, you still have the right to use this symbol, make no mistake. You’re within your rights to fly it, if only to tell people something about you that they might otherwise not know. Speech is not action. You can say what you want. But I can tell you why you are wrong and urge you to stop. Legal, yes. Wise? Kind? Right? And does a whole state want to? Hopefully not.
For the moment, I like the idea of throwing up another flag alongside it with an arrow that says “<—WE ARE NOT WITH THIS GUY” or “JUST SO YOU KNOW THE CONFEDERACY NO LONGER EXISTS AND HAS NOT FOR 150 YEARS ALTHOUGH WE ARE STILL WORKING THROUGH MANY OF THE SURROUNDING ISSUES (PLEASE STEP INTO THIS MUSEUM SO THAT WE MAY MORE FULLY EXPLAIN THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT).”
After all, the way to combat speech you disagree with — even awful speech — is with more speech. I think you stand a better chance when you say: These are words, and we can fight them with words. This is not a fire that words cannot put out. You want to wear that? You want to fly that? Okay, but it does not only mean what you think it means, and we can tell you so. And if you really want to say heritage, not hate, this is a strange way of going about it.