On another day, it would be controversial for a fairly lengthy list of reasons. This isn’t to say the point is without merit. It is. But like most points, it’s not that simple and, as has become the way of the New York Times, the argument is made dishonestly.
The white supremacist who murdered nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., five years ago dispensed with the fiction that the Confederate battle flag was an innocuous symbol of “Southern pride.” A murderer’s manifesto describing the killings as the start of a race war — combined with photos of the killer brandishing a pistol and a rebel flag — made it impossible to ignore the connection between Confederate ideology and a blood-drenched tradition of racial terrorism that dates back to the mid-19th century in the American South.
That one crazy racist, Dylann Roof, thought so does not dictate meaning for everyone any more than Roof using a gay pride flag would dictate its significance. The confederate battle flag may well deserve to be excised from our culture, but not because of Dylann Roof. Yet, this was the lede paragraph of the Times’ editorial, arguing that it made it “impossible to ignore.”
I’m no southerner. I have no confederate battle flag hanging in the garage or displayed on the rear window of my pickup, nor would it ever occur to me to do so even if I had a pickup. It’s of no meaning to me, and its eradication, per se, wouldn’t make any difference in my world. I am fully prepared to accept the premise that it’s a brutal reminder of slavery. I am also fully prepared to accept the premise that to others who are southerners, that it’s also a historical artifact of their heritage. Those with a horse in the race can argue over it.
But when statues of confederates were torn down, the argument was made that it would end there, and was not the first step on a slippery slope. It didn’t turn out that way. This isn’t an argument as to why the slippery slope was the right way to go, which might well be the case, but that the eradication of the remnants of the confederacy should be acceptable to all without dispute because it would not be used to eliminate a huge swathe of American history. It was a lie. It was just the first step, and they lied to make it happen, and once it happened, it led inexorably to the next step.
It’s also reminiscent of the logical fallacy used whenever a cop wrongfully kills someone. Whip out his rap sheet to taint the dead guy. Whatever he might have done years before is logically irrelevant to why he’s dead now, but that doesn’t matter. More to the point, by revealing that the dead guy was no angel, his life, and death, is no longer as valuable to society so that we don’t feel that his wrongful death is such a significant loss. We valorize heroes. We demonize villains. If we vilify the dead guy, then we just can’t get nearly as worked up about a wrongful, needless murder.
The New York Times’ lede did the same thing as every murdering cop. Start out with demonizing the confederacy by Dylann Roof’s connection, and taint it before getting to the buried point.
The federal government embraced pillars of the white supremacist movement when it named military bases in the South. Consider, for example, Fort Benning, Ga., which honors a Confederate general, Henry Lewis Benning, who devoted himself to the premise that African-Americans were not really human and could never be trusted with full citizenship.
The name, Fort Benning, was made official in 1922. I wasn’t there so I can’t say why they chose the name of a confederate general. It certainly seems like a terrible choice, and it may very well reflect some racist purpose, or at least a lack of racist concern. But the New York Times editorial board, attuned as it is with the sensibilities of military vets and recognizing that not everyone is devoted to critical theory, offers an alt justification.
The first problem with this argument is that, as individuals, these men were traitors. These rebel officers, who were willing to destroy the United States to keep black people in chains, are synonymous with the racist ideology that drove them to treason.
Of course, they were traitors, rebel officers, back in 1922 as well, when we were much closer to the Civil War such that many were still alive who lost family at the hands of the rebels. And the Yankees in the War of Northern Aggression. Why they didn’t realize this at the time would be a mystery, except the New York Times has an answer.
The second difficulty is that the base names were agreed upon as part of broader accommodation in which the military embraced stringent segregation so as not to offend Southerners by treating African-Americans as equals. The names represent not only oppression before and during the Civil War, but also state-sponsored bigotry after it.
If true, this is awful. And even though there is no proof, it could be true. Or it could be an accommodation to the post-Civil War conciliation of brother fighting brother, which is no longer an acceptable belief, even though people believed it.
But there is one point that goes entirely unmentioned in this lengthy attack on the United States military for its racist history, its retention of names of Confederate generals for its bases, its history of segregation and oppression of black people. The New York Times chose today, Memorial Day, to make its stand.
Military installations that celebrate white supremacist traitors have loomed steadily larger in the civic landscape since the country began closing smaller bases and consolidating its forces on larger ones. Bases named for men who sought to destroy the Union in the name of racial injustice are an insult to the ideals servicemen and women are sworn to uphold — and an embarrassing artifact of the time when the military itself embraced anti-American values. It is long past time for those bases to be renamed.
They could have said this six months ago, a week ago, a week from today. The New York Times chose to publish this on Memorial Day, the day set to honor those who died in battle for their country.