Only in modern day America could a racist psychopath kill nine people in a Southern church and the focus turn to a flag. Only in modern day America could our nation’s largest retailer, Wal Mart, announce — to substantial applause — that it will no longer sell merchandise featuring the Confederate flag, but will continue to permit any mentally ill nut on the street to walk into its store and buy as many guns and ammunition as he can afford.
Did I miss the part of this story where Dylann Roof stabbed nine people to death with a flag? Because every time I think we can’t get dumber on social media, we get dumber.
If Roof had killed those people in Charleston while dressed up in a powdered wig as George Washington — gasp, a slaveholder! — would social media mobs have demanded that Washington be removed from the one dollar bill and the Washington monument be renamed in downtown D.C.?
How long until this comes across your Facebook timeline: “Click like if you want to rename WASHINGTON, D.C. I’m offended by the name of the city. WASHINGTON WAS RACIST.”
Hell, it’s probably already happening.
We haven’t been collectively this dumb at falling for a bait and switch since we went to war with Iraq after 9/11.
Of course, because corporate stupidity spreads like a virus online, Amazon and eBay immediately followed Wal Mart’s “brave” stance in disallowing Confederate flag items. Although, eBay continues to offer tons of Nazi gear. So at least they aren’t incredibly selective and arbitrary in what they ban. The final straw for me was something simple — Warner Brothers announcing they would no longer license the Dukes of Hazzard General Lee car with the Confederate flag on the roof. I mean, how dumb can you get? Bo and Luke Duke were American heroes beloved by anyone who liked fast cars, doors that didn’t work, tight jeans, Daisy Duke shorts, and rivers that needed to be jumped by a car in the air. (Now Boss Hogg and Roscoe P. Coltrane on the other hand — total assholes.) Is there anyone on earth who watched that television show and thought, “these racist Duke boys have to be stopped!” Is there anyone on earth who would see the Confederate flag on top of the General Lee and think Warner Brothers hates black people?
I mean, come the fuck on.
(Update: Apple has also pulled all Civil War computer games off its store because they feature the Confederate flag. Computer. Games. This is real life.)
But that’s the problem with our modern era, we have lost all ability to put things into context. There’s a difference between what’s said in church and what’s said in a comedy club; there’s a difference between a racist waving the Confederate flag and Sons of Confederate Veteran members sitting down to debate Southern strategy on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg. But not on social media. Social media doesn’t exist for context. It exists for immediate expressions of outrage. Context takes up too many characters, bro. If I can’t sum up the world in 140 characters, what’s the point of the world at all? We’re not far from electing a smiley face emoticon President.
As parents, we learn that if our kids throw fits all the time, sometimes you have to ignore them or the fits continue. As adults, we do the exact opposite with social media faux rage. And so the fits continue. As a result, social media mobs move from one roving target to the next, the equivalent of the smoke monster from “Lost,” waiting to attack someone every day for something “offensive.” Welcome to the Disneyfication of American social media, where every single person, place or thing is either good or evil and there’s no middle ground. It’s why I’ve found myself writing columns defending Ray Rice, Donald Sterling, and the racist Oklahoma frat boys in the past year. Social media drives the reactions so over the top that all context is lost. It used to be considered a sign of intelligence to be able to hold two conflicting thoughts in your head at the same time and try to reconcile them, now that just means you never get retweeted.
And whatever you do, don’t have any opinion that might offend anyone. That’s the absolute worst thing you could ever do in America today. Your opinion better be the exact same as mine or you don’t have the right to have it. Since when did America’s new credo become “the pursuit of life, liberty, happiness, and not being offended.” This makes me fucking sick. This is not the United States of I’m not offended. You don’t have a constitutional right not to be upset about things. This is the least offensive time in American history and people are simultaneously the most offended. You want to be offended by things? Look outside our borders. America has never been a better and safer country.
The next time someone says they’re offended by something, join my campaign to respond that you’re offended that they’re offended. It will blow their fucking minds. Social media mobs have been conditioned to believe that being offended is a one way street. Only they have the right to be offended.
Of course, we should have all seen this coming — Twitter and Facebook mobs turning their focus to American history and demanding immediate and extensive redress lest the “bad guys” win. Because I know exactly where I want to get my serious historical information — from people on Facebook and Twitter. They’ve got all the complexities and nuances of America’s brilliant and sordid history nailed down. Click like if you are against racism! If you don’t click like to my post about needing to eliminate any aspect of history that makes me uncomfortable, then you are racist.
That’s how modern social media discourse works, in polar opposite binaries. So what if the truth is always somewhere in between? We have to end racism by clicking like.
Which leaves me with a big question: when did American history become about making people feel better? Should we go ahead and merge the self help aisle and history?
We’ve become such a soft country that we can’t handle anything that shakes our comfort level or challenges us to think on a deeper level. Oh, Huck Finn uses bad words in this book! Harry Potter’s focus on wizardry imperils my children’s Christian faith! If I read about something bad happening, it might trigger bad memories in my life! I need trigger warnings!
Here’s the only trigger warning I’m willing to give — don’t pull it when you put a gun to your head.
I love American history for the same reason I love great literature, because it ennobles the mind to read about imperfect people — people just like you and me — struggling to be better than they actually are. Sometimes these people fail — Thomas Jefferson had kids with a slave — but he also wrote the most beautiful and important document in the history of our country: the Declaration of Independence. Martin Luther King Jr. slept with prostitutes in his Washington hotel room just before he gave the most important speech of the 20th century. Does that make either of these men less worthy of study? Of course not. It humanizes them and shows that like all of us they weren’t perfect either. American history is riddled with conflict, both external and internal. It’s why the study of history is really the study of us.
Read enough history and you come to realize that great men and women of history weren’t always great. They were like you and me, incredibly flawed, but simultaneously capable of magnificent achievement. I remember asking Taylor Branch — whose three volume history of the Civil Rights movement you all should read — about his decision to cover all the aspects of King’s life, the sublime alongside the sordid. He said he’d gotten tremendous amounts of criticism from people who wanted him to remove the “flaws” from King’s biography. But his response to these critics was elegant and simple, “If King managed to accomplish all that he did despite these flaws, then you, without any flaws whatsoever, should be capable of achieving so much more.”
I know in our modern social media world filled with like buttons and favoriting conceits it’s impossible to believe that people do both good and bad things, but we’ve got to stop this latest viral trend before it gets started — judging people from history based not on their own times, but ours in the present day. Many things in our history are offensive to present day tastes, but you don’t combat things you dislike in history by removing them from discussion and analysis. That’s what totalitarian regimes do, eliminate any aspects of history that conflict with their version of the present day. When a new dictator arrives what’s the first thing he does, remove all the statues of the old dictator. Erase his history. Hell, it’s what Muslim fundamentalists do when they erase “graven” historic Islamic images that conflict with their regressive interpretation of the Koran. Cleansing history of things that bring discomfort isn’t what free societies hoping to learn from past struggles do.
But it’s what we’re in danger of doing thanks to a viral Internet era.
Here’s a newsflash for you — EVERY CIVIL WAR SOLDIER — NORTH AND SOUTH — WAS RACIST AS HELL COMPARED TO OUR STANDARDS IN 2015.
And here’s a history lesson for you from someone who didn’t learn about the Civil War from Facebook. I actually went to Civil War sleepaway camp in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and have been fascinated by the era for my entire life. (Yes, I was really cool in high school). The north didn’t go to war with the south to end slavery, they went to war to preserve the union. If Abraham Lincoln — a man I’m so impressed by that I named one of my sons after him — had organized an army to end slavery, he would have faced revolt in the north too. The emancipation proclamation didn’t free the slaves nationwide, it only ended slavery in the states that were rebelling. That’s because if it had ended slavery everywhere Lincoln would have faced additional secession from the border states of Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland, three states that the north desperately needed to retain. Lincoln was a political genius who used the war to bring about a greater good — indeed, he came to see the bloodshed and turmoil of the war as America’s penance for the horrors of ever allowing slavery — but Lincoln was about preserving the union first. That was his primary goal. (Interestingly, Lincoln also maneuvered to prevent the Supreme Court from hearing the question of whether a state could secede from the union. Because he knew he’d probably lose that court battle. Yep, secession was probably legal under our 1860’s Constitution.)
Where you fought in the Civil War wasn’t a reflection of your opinion on slavery — the vast majority of Southern soldiers were too poor to own slaves — it was a function of where you were born. The flag you marched under was a quirk of geographic fate; your family’s ancestral decision to settle in Illinois or Alabama dictated your allegiance. These were simpler and more provincial times, every state was its own country, every community its own state. You fought, bled and died alongside your neighbors. All of the soldiers in the Civil War were, just like you and me, a product of the era in which they grew up.
The American flag — which flew over the North — supported and endorsed slavery far longer than the Confederate flag ever did. In fact, this will blow Facebook’s simplistic hive minds, by the end of the war, black soldiers were preparing to fight for their freedom in the Confederate army under Robert E. Lee. Some southern generals and cabinet members advocated allowing slaves to fight for their freedom well before 1865. Slavery was a large part of the causes of the civil war, but it wasn’t the only part. Far from it. You want a fact that will blow your mind? Barack Obama’s mother’s family owned slaves in the Civil War era. Yes, our nation’s first black president is the descendant of slave owners.
Welcome to the complexities of American history.
The Civil War is the most important era in our history because all of the conflicts that we faced from 1861 to 1865 still define and challenge our nation today. Those questions continue to ring forward in our modern era: how do we divide power between the state and federal government, what’s the scope of our taxing ability — our first national tax was used to pay for the Civil War — how expansive are our war powers, who should vote and how do we protect that right, how do we handle immigration — many of the northern soldiers stepped right off the boat from Germany or Ireland or Italy to take up arms — what does equality really mean, how do we reconcile great variance between rich and poor? All of those issues were at play in 1861, and they’re still at play now.
Boiling down all of these issues to a symbol is simplistic, stupid, and trivial, which, I suppose, is appropriate given that these are the three adjectives that frequently come to my mind when I think about social media today.
So after all that, here’s my radical view on the Confederate flag — context is king. You remember context, right? It’s a word that serves to set the parameters of why, how and where something is used and what that usage means. It’s a way that intelligent and reasoned people used to think because it avoids artificial either/or constructs. If the Confederate flag appears at a KKK rally, okay, I have a pretty good sense for how it’s being used. But if it appears on a Confederate cemetery or in a Sons of Confederate Veterans meeting, it’s probably something different. My idea is incredibly radical so hold your breath: a symbol can mean more than one thing. The Confederate flag is racist when racists use it, and when racists don’t use it, it’s not racist.
But that’s not good enough once the wheels of the social media mob start turning, there’s only one proposition — THE CONFEDERATE FLAG IS EVIL AND RACIST AND MUST BE BANNED AND REMOVED FOREVER.
And let’s not stop there. Let’s not sell objects featuring the flag anywhere and let’s take down any statues of former Confederate officers and let’s change the names of parks and before long we’re going to be dynamiting the statues of soldiers in town squares all over the South. Are my books about the Civil War really safe if they have the Confederate flag on the dust jacket? Should I burn them now just to be safe? How about my painting of Pickett’s Charge hanging on the wall in my office? There’s a Confederate flag there too. I’m a total racist, right? That’s what the Confederate flag means.
Which leads to the scariest proposition of all that has now gone viral and been endorsed with little opposition anywhere — if something in history upsets me it shouldn’t exist.
Of course there’s a long history of banning things in this country and in the world.
What we learn time and again is that banned objects become more powerful than they ever were before they were banned. Congratulations Twitter and Facebook, you’ve turned an object that wasn’t always racist into the most powerful image that racists could ever imagine, a one stop shop for rallying bigotry.
The simple fact of the matter is that today’s social media mob wouldn’t go to war to end slavery. That would require too much bravery and effort. They’d click that they didn’t like slavery on Facebook. Take a selfie of that dislike button and post it on Instagram. And then eventually they’d move on to the next distracting outrage of the moment, clicking like and favoriting Tweets to their heart’s content, until they’ve built a social media wall around them so completely without context, they have no idea what the rest of the world looks like.
Of course they’ll never experience the manifold complexities and nuances of life this way.
But at least they won’t ever be offended.