June 22, 2015

It all began with a campaign button

In the context of the debate over whether or not South Carolina should move a copy of the old Confederate Army Battle Flag from a memorial next to the state capitol into a museum, someone on Facebook asked why on earth anyone would appreciate the old stars and bars. So I replied with some nostalgia and an anecdote:

I had family on both sides of the Civil War. Whether this particular flag flies or gets moved to a museum is meaningless to me. The flag itself, being a battle flag, speaks to me of courage in the face of overwhelming odds and certain defeat. I understand that some modern people see it as representing hatred, but this is a very new interpretation that was not even an issue as recently as the 1980s. No one complained about it until the NAACP began losing power and influence in the decade leading up to 9/11. I know. I was there and watched the controversy being invented.

There was a black Georgia farm boy I was in the army with who had one on the wall over his bunk. His family, some slaves, some free, fought hard on the side of the south. One of his grandfathers was a flag boy at Peachtree Creek. A volunteer, by the way, and a slave, who got permission from his master to join the Army of Tennessee.

It's funny, sometimes, the stories history books never tell because nobody bothered to write them down.

All through the 1980s the NAACP was losing power, financing, and influence. They were rapidly on the way to becoming completely irrelevant. Firebrands like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton carried a passion and a torch no one needed any more. Under the Reagan "trickle down" economic theory American cities that had been pivoting on the brink of disaster began recovering. Black Americans were welcomed in medical schools, legal schools, Ivy League schools, technical academies, and everywhere else. Old post-Civil War/Reconstruction Era Black guilds for business, technical trades, and agriculture suddenly became relevant again as the first generation to benefit from Dr. King's legacy began achieving success in areas that their parents and grandparents never could have dreamed of entering. Many of today's most popular black actors, singers, and other performers entered the industry during the 1980s, following in the footsteps of Sammy Davis, Jr., Bill Cosby, and a handful of others who had first broken into Hollywood's protected ranks despite powerful prejudices in the 1950s and 1960s.

And then Bill Clinton used the Confederate Battle Flag in a campaign. Posters, banners, buttons, just like the one at the top of this page, began appearing. They ran as Southern Blue Dog Democrats dedicated to breaking the hold of "corrupt" Northern Republicans who they claimed were "owned and controlled by industries dedicated to death and destruction." Suddenly the NAACP found its voice. They began screaming that the Democratic Party adoption of the old battle flag was a huge betrayal to blacks everywhere because the flag itself was symbolic of hatred, slavery, and a lasting symbol of white privilege. Not long after the NAACP began it's fiery attack, academics and pundits began showing up on television and in newspaper op-eds presenting historic facts to prove the NAACP's fury was justified. The Clinton-Gore campaign quickly dropped the offensive materials and issued profound apologies. I watched the whole messy affair unfold on the pages of Time magazine and on CNN (which had just recently become available in Japan). It was during this controversy that Time shifted from a more or less centrist editorial slant to a far left anti-establishment viewpoint.

I still don't understand why this simple campaign button created such fervor. Throughout my youth, "The South will Rise Again!" had been a theme underlying every improvement in schools, economy, scientific development, and industry throughout the South. Under President Carter the South had once again discovered it's Southern Pride and had dedicated itself to proving they could compete in a world based on fair and equitable treatment of all people, regardless of race, gender, or even political affiliation. (In the 1990s, the LGBT movement was still a minor group of folks with loud voices out in San Francisco that nobody paid attention to.)

Politics in the information age has become a battle of competing rhetoric, with both sides reaching for the one internet meme that will convince unaligned independents to throw themselves behind one party. In this desperate search for five, ten, or fifteen words that will touch the hearts of people with little or no interest in politics, facts get lost in the shuffle and history becomes an amorphous ball of clay that each side attempts to mold into something that will prove they are righteous while their opposition is evil. As the 2016 Presidential campaign unfolds and this rhetoric heats up, please take a moment here and there to look up the facts behind the brutally competitive, often contradictory ideas that will be thrown around by both sides. We have at our fingertips the greatest library of information humanity has ever assembled and made available. Let's use it to keep the politicians honest, shall we?