The murder of nine people inside Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., by a 21-year-old addict and self-identified white supremacist, has re-ignited a debate over the Confederate battle flag.
And, on Friday, the Supreme Court of the United States declared that the marriages of same-sex Americans will be recognized as legal and valid everywhere in the United States, and the rainbow-emblazoned Pride flag is the ubiquitous image of the moment.
In the context of this moment, these two symbols, nearly laden with the burden of their meanings, tell the story of a bitterly divided America and the wedges that are driving us apart.
For many Americans, the Confederate battle flag is a symbol of hate and oppression and a bloody reminder of the darkest days in our nation’s history. But some Americans in the South claim the flag as a symbol of their “heritage,” part of their unique connection to the history of their state, their region and this country, warts and all. These Americans insist that their affinity for the flag exists outside of, and wholly separate and apart from, the flag’s history as a symbol of the oppression of black people in this country. For them, buying a rebel flag bandana at Walmart was not a terrorist act, but a way to express pride in their identity. Whether any symbol so fraught can be parsed this way is a valid question, but let us presume that these Americans are good and honest people entitled to their beliefs.
In South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas, these sharply divergent views of the flag are of more consequence because those states have incorporated the iconography of the flag into their own legally-defined symbology. In the debate over whether these symbols should stand, it is virtually impossible to parse the meaning behind the symbol for one reason: There are black citizens in those states who pay taxes, and a government, “of the people, by the people and for the people,” cannot rationally expect citizens for whom the symbol represents hatred, oppression and violence to allow it to represent them.
In the United States, individuals enjoy the solemn right to freedom of expression with very few limitations. Whatever your intent, you can display the rebel flag on your clothing, in your yard, on your business, even on the roof of your car. The rest of us are, simultaneously, free to draw our own conclusions about your intent and express our own opinions about the symbol, but that’s what individual rights are all about.
The government is different, though, because it has no inalienable rights.
Government is a tool, created by the people and vested with duties and obligations to its citizens, all of its citizens. A government that incorporates the iconography of a symbol that any of its citizens find so patently and outrageously offensive cannot truly be said to represent them.
Flying above the South Carolina state capital, the symbol cannot be parsed, because the implication is that the symbol represents all the people of South Carolina, when it clearly does not. To use the parlance of the times, the flag “shoves in the face” of many citizens a centuries-long history of government-sanctioned and sponsored injustice and oppression.
That brings us to the other symbol of the moment, the gay Pride flag, which, like the rebel flag, has come to represent many things to many people, but is most closely identified with the struggle to secure equal treatment under the law for LGBT Americans. For many of us, this struggle harkens back to earlier struggles to ensure that the promise of America, so boldly stated in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, remains true for all.
For others, the very concept of “LGBT rights” is an abomination, government sanctioning of a “lifestyle” they believe is sinful and anti-American. Again, let us presume that these Americans are good and honest people entitled to their beliefs. For many of them, the Pride flag has become a symbol of sinfulness, and an abandonment of the Christian principles they believe form the foundation of our American way of life. They believe that our government cannot uphold the rights of LGBT Americans without trampling theirs. The rainbow flag is, for them, fast becoming a symbol of an oppressive agenda being, “shoved in their faces,” by a culture and society that doesn’t represent them.
If, in some alternate universe, the government of South Carolina, were to memorialize in law the flying of the Pride flag over the state capital, these Americans would take to the streets with megaphones and signs of protest, or worse, and any honest person could understand their anger. That symbol cannot represent them, or their beliefs, any more than the rebel flag can represent the black citizens of South Carolina.
So where does this leave us? Are we as a nation as hopelessly fractured along thousands of fault lines of racial, ethnic, socio-economic, religious and even regional division, as this Tale of Two Flags seems to suggest?
Even now – when the daily headlines taunt us with the reminder that for every step we take toward realizing the full promise of our Constitution, we take two back – there are moments so exquisite, so profoundly and beautifully, capital “A” American that they renew our hope.
When, on Friday morning, celebrants on the steps of the Supreme Court broke into the Star-Spangled Banner in nearly perfect harmony, it was impossible not to feel a bit awed, not at the content of the decision, but at the hallowed nature of the process itself.
Through all of our stumbles and fractures and fights, America endures, the Star-Spangled Banner yet waves. One flag – This is the story of America, the dream we hold closest to our hearts, the one we teach our children in kindergarten.
“I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands; one Nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.”