Freedom, Fanaticism, and Flags

Today I'd like to tackle what seems to be an uncomfortable topic these days: freedom of speech. The impetus for my discussion is that one of my family members recently posted a link to the following petition:

Remove the Confederate Flag From All Government Places

For me, the Confederate flag represents a failed attempt by a group of rebellious traitors to secede from the Union in order to keep their slaves, and I largely feel that way about statues of Confederate Generals like Robert E Lee. The Confederate Generals were traitors, and they do not deserve our adoration. There's a reason why we don't keep statues of Benedict Arnold around; despite his heroism and triumphs as a General for the Continental Army, Arnold sold out his country and fled to England, and his name has become synonymous with traitorship.

I say all of this in order to reinforce the point that if the Confederate flag went away tomorrow, I wouldn't miss it any more than I miss the Swastika. But here's some food for thought: the predominant argument that I see against the Confederate flag is that racist idiots use that flag as a symbol; but think about it - these same idiots also use the United States flag, and they also use the Christian cross. What should we ban, then? Should we also ban the flag of the United States? Should we also ban crosses? Where should we draw the line on what we allow in our society? When will enough be enough?

For some people, the Confederate flag is a symbol of hate, whereas for other people it represents their cultural origin. I personally think those people are misguided, but still - we do not complain about people who fly a Mexican flag to show pride in their heritage. Or a German flag. Or a Canadian flag. At my house we fly an Irish flag on St Patrick's Day in honor of my Irish roots. Let's make this more personal - should we deny someone the right to display an Iranian or Chinese flag just because our nation is upset with their nation of origin? Or should we respect their freedom of speech and allow them to display their pride in their heritage?

At the end of the day, the racist idiots of our society can use any emblem they choose as they spew their toxic filth, but that doesn't make the emblem itself a bad thing. If we're not banning Christian crosses, which have been used by the KKK and other stupid domestic terror organizations for over a century, then I think we can let the misguided people who think that the Confederate flag is a representation of their cultural heritage have their freedom of speech. That is what living in a free society is all about.

Once you start banning every symbol of cultural heritage that offends you, then you might as well start banning books next. And when banning books isn't effective enough, you might want to start burning books. And when burning books isn't effective enough, you might want to start locking up the people who write or say things that offend you. And when locking up the people who offend you isn't effective enough, then you're one short step away from becoming the very evil that you despise. Returning to my earlier thought, I have no love for the Confederate flag; to me, it is a symbol of cowardice, greed, immorality, and rebellion. But to ban the Confederate flag would deny others their Constitutional right to freedom of speech, and therein lies one of the fundamental dilemmas of living in a free society. Sometimes the problem with an idealistic goal like banning a flag is that it fails to take the full picture of its ramifications into account.

Let me close with an apropos thought from Adlai Stevenson: "My definition of a free society is a society where it is safe to be unpopular. Where it's safe to say what’s on your mind, especially when everyone disagrees. Where it's safe to believe what you believe, especially when everyone else’s beliefs stand elsewhere. Where it’s safe to swim against the current and be perfectly safe from the other fish."

With that in mind, my personal objections to the Confederate flag are secondary to others' right to freedom of speech, and that's exactly how it should be. Freedom of speech does not guarantee freedom from offense; to have freedom, you must accept its consequences.


UPDATE: I occasionally watch John Oliver's Last Week Tonight, and a few years ago he posted the following video, wherein he presented some of the same feelings that I have about Confederate symbols; namely that most of them belong in a museum. We should not attempt to erase all symbols of darkness from our sordid history, but we should place some of those symbols in the proper context, and I think that a museum is the best way to do that.

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