We have all been horrified and transfixed by the events in Charleston this week. Those of us who live in the state of South Carolina perhaps have been a bit more horrified and transfixed than most. There is much, too much, to say about the Charleston murders, but let me focus on one, seemingly ancillary aspect that has surprised me—how quickly attention has turned to the presence of the Confederate flag on the grounds of the state house in Columbia.
The Confederate flag was first flown above the state house in 1962, as a response to the civil rights movement. Its hoisting over the state house had absolutely nothing to do, in any direct way, with the Civil War. After a bitterly contentious fight, in 2000, the flag was removed from the dome of the state house, and placed near a memorial to Confederate soldiers, a sort of tortured “don’t ask, don’t tell” bad faith compromise that didn’t satisfy anyone. The compromise had other odious components, such as a requirement that no war memorial in the state could be changed without a two-thirds vote of the legislature.
And so the Confederate flag has flown ever since. The state house grounds are perhaps the most schizophrenic historic site I have ever seen, overflowing with the rhetoric of the Civil War and Reconstruction—hatred towards damn Yankees, the commemoration of some of the vilest racists in the history of this country, alongside a frieze, intended as a concession representing the African American history of the state.
But other than on the state house, in my experience, the Confederate flag is no longer seen in public in South Carolina. I have seen very few cars with rebel plates, and never seen it waved as football games. If you want a Confederate flag, you keep it private. (And I suspect the private display of the flag, on frat-house walls and the like, is still pretty common.) But there really is no longer an acceptable public role for the flag. The flag on the state lawn grounds is increasingly isolated.
But Republican politicians, I suspect more out of not wanting to raise a shitstorm of controversy, rather than true desire to keep the flag flying, have done nothing to remove the flag from the state house grounds. This is reflected in a statement of almost staggering incoherence by a prominent statewide politician. US Senator Lindsey Graham, currently running for President, acknowledged that the flag was a “racist symbol” but also said “at the end of the day it’s time for people in South Carolina—to revisit that decision [the 2000 decision] would be fine with me, but this is part of who we are” — at once open to the possibility of removing the flag, while affirming, with a very white “we,” that “this is part of who we are.”
Other politicians, like Gov. Nikki Haley were also reduced to babble in their efforts to neither defend nor attack the presence of the flag.
Opinions polls from last year show white South Carolinians more or less equally divided on the flag questions. But I feel this is somewhat misleading. In my conversations with Republicans from around here, admittedly none of them rabid tea party types, they would love to see the flag permanently taken down. They have few problems with the flag as such, and say they don’t see why people are getting so hepped up over a symbol, but there is nothing they resent more than the image of white South Carolinians as racist rednecks, and the presence of the Confederate flag is an abundant confirmation of that bias, and has in their eyes become a liability. And I suspect most statewide Republican leaders sort of feel the same way; no real love for the flag, and they resent the negative publicity it is giving the state, but at the same time they don’t really want to tangle with the passionate neo-Confederates who want to keep the flag. And until this week, in their political calculus, doing nothing was far easier and less politically costly than doing something. But it is no longer clear that is the case.
And to pivot, as of course we always must, to Israel, this flag episode strikes me a perfect example of that magic word in the American-Israeli relationship, “pressure.” I of course do not know what will happen with the Confederate flag at the state house (and I suspect it will despicably wave for some time to come) but this is how politicians get pressured into doing things they don’t really want to do. If South Carolina is pressured into taking down the flag, can Israel ever be “pressured” into starting serious negotiations with the Palestinians, and making a serious offer about the settlements?
A few reflections on pressure:
- You cannot pressure someone or some political entity—unless you operate like Don Corleone—into doing something they are adamantly opposed to doing. But you can pressure someone or some entity into doing something they are extremely reluctant to do. And you do this by convincing them that as difficult it is to make the needed change, maintaining the current status quo would be even more difficult.
- You exert pressure by successfully stigmatizing what you want to get rid of. This is a long term process, but when people say “I oppose gay marriage, but I’m no bigot” or unreconstructed rebels in South Carolina are afraid to wave the rebel rag in public, you have won half the battle.
- You convince the “moderates” that in their self-interest they need to separate themselves from the “radicals,” and that they have allowed the radicals, who usually have greater fervor than numbers, to dominate the “moderate” majority.
- Longtime struggles sometimes turn on a dime. There is only one reason why we are discussing the Confederate flag now; a horrible, shocking act of violence that has been universally condemned, even by those supporting the flag. You need to build the groundwork for what you want to achieve, and take advantage of events, however much those being pressured will bloviate about “taking advantage of a tragedy” for narrow political ends.
And so, the Confederate flag today, the settlements tomorrow? The situations are, needless to say, much more different than they are alike, starting with the obvious fact that the Confederate flag, like any flag, is ultimately just a symbol, unlike the settlements, which are all too real. But we have all read those opinions polls, which most of us discount, to the effect that most Israelis oppose the settlements. And the question is whether this latent and fairly tepid opposition to the settlements can ever be catalyzed into sterner stuff, into a serious political movement? I don’t know, I don’t think so. But those of us who live in South Carolina, who have suddenly seen something that seemed like a dead and out of reach goal, the removal of the Confederate flag from the statehouse suddenly become a live national issue—now Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush have called for its removal. So I guess the question I pose is how to turn the West Bank settlements into the next Confederate flag?