Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe
Second thoughts on recent banner headlines . . .
I wouldn’t call the south a complete mystery to me. I can visit Savannah, as our family did over Christmas, and be charmed by it. My southern relations are terrific people and we all live more or less in the same America. But as southerners debate what to do about the battle flag of Northern Virginia I wonder what it is they're actually debating.
My Facebook friends call the battle flag a symbol of treason. But that’s ancient history. I suppose the Japanese flag—a fierce red sun on a white shield—is a symbol of the foulest treachery. Yet that flag occupied my TV screen for the length of the Japan-USA soccer match and I thought nothing of it—making me like everyone else. Why should we be troubled by a flag flown by an enemy that lost its war to America almost a century earlier?
The reason isn’t treason; it’s that the battle flag of Northern Virginia survived to become the battle flag of Jim Crow. It became the symbol of a hundred-years’ war to subjugate, humiliate, and—in some minds—eradicate millions of American citizens of color. That war ended just the other day if it ended at all.
Not even the north has come to terms with this past. Jim Crow was practiced in the south and tolerated and enabled in the north, in Congress, in pulpits, in academia, in corridors of power everywhere, and in editorial pages that viewed segregation "with concern" while advising its enemies to go slow so as not to vex the segregationists. If southerners marvel at how much the north seems to care about their precious flag now, one reason for that is how little we cared then, when a coffee cup bearing the battle flag and the legend "Forget Hell" was a perfect keepsake to bring back from a family trip through Mississippi.
But that was then. When southerners say—as a South Carolina state senator did the other day—"this flag is a part of our heritage," I wonder how that heritage is taught in southern schools. Do southern schoolchildren learn what Jim Crow was about and that it was horrendous? Or are they raised to understand that evergreen values were cherished but mistakes were made? What part of heritage do they understand?
The Supreme Court’s historic ruling legalizing same-sex marriage has been compared by critics to its historic ruling decades ago legalizing abortion. Again the court preempted a debate that should have been left to the people to decide, slowly and incrementally. As a result, the issue will fester forever.
I don’t buy it. It’s true the abortion battle Roe v. Wade was supposed to resolve in 1973 is still being fought, more fiercely now than then. But same-sex marriage, thanks to Obergefell v. Hodges, will soon be ancient history.
The most cogent legal argument for legalizing same-sex marriage—Judge Richard Posner’s opinion in the Seventh Circuit—tells us why. Gay marriage does palpable good, Posner reasoned, but no palpable harm—indignation aside. This means there’s no legal justification for forbidding it. As indignation wanes—in five years, or five months, or next week—it’ll be hard for anyone to remember what the fuss was about.
Abortion is different. Like gay marriage, it does palpable good. But it also harms. It kills. For that reason, a comparison of the two landmark cases does legal abortion no favor, and I imagine prolife forces will insist on the comparison and draw strength from it. The late activist Florynce Kennedy famously said, “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” But if there’s ever going to be a meeting of the minds on this issue, perhaps abortion needs to be a sacrament. If it were, opponents might stop framing it as inconvenienced ladies dropping by the corner clinic for a quickie and stop piling on impediments—the waiting periods, the ultrasounds, the hospital privileges, and so forth—in the name of forcing women to stop and think about what they're doing. As if women didn’t think and think and think.