What is achieved by activist Bree Newsome scaling the flagpole outside the South Carolina statehouse, and removing the Confederate flag?
What is achieved by TV Land banning reruns of The Dukes of Hazzard?
The first was a courageous, clever act of civil disobedience protesting the endemic, poisonous racism that lay at the heart of the Charleston massacre, with its roots in the South’s slavery-stained, Klan-stained past.
Newsome’s scaling of the flagpole was elating, definitive. When all politicians around promised and equivocated, she just did. And she did it stylishly and simply, in full view of police. The picture of her being arrested also shows her beaming a proud, happy smile--and any right-thinking person smiles right back at that picture.
The second is a TV show, with two “good old boys” performing memorable car stunts and the grinning stupidity of Roscoe P. Coltrane. A dumber show, far further down the symbol food chain.
Of course, the problem, the offense is—just like the flag on the pole—symbolic. The problem isn’t anything said or done on the show. It is purely visual. It is that stunt-addicted car: the General Lee, emblazoned with the Confederate flag, roof to bonnet to bumper.
But surely there is a difference between the symbolic power of a flag fluttering outside a courthouse—standing as a symbol of that state and its beliefs—and the sight of it on a battered car on a TV show.
The flag is in a public space, central to a community. People have to walk past it, like it or not. The TV show is something you choose to watch or not watch, on a station you can choose to watch or not watch. The decision to remove the flag is right, the decision to strike the TV show seems extreme and wrongheaded, but entirely in keeping with our times.
We are absolutely crazy about banning stuff. Sometimes the bans are in the public interest, like the Confederate flag flying over a courthouse.
Sometimes the bans are prejudiced and petty, such as the Baptist pastor who has just banned gays from his hardware store.
Sometimes they are practical, such as various places trying to ban the sale of fireworks this July 4. Sometimes they sound stupid and are probably a good idea, like France reportedly banning people from eating, applying makeup, or playing excessively loud music while driving.
But often, bans are panicked, and ill-thought out, as with TV Land banning The Dukes of Hazzard. The reasoning behind the ban can seem right in genesis; it's the ban itself that seems discordant.
In our culture of instant offense, we ban before we think. However, banning isn’t a sign of strength or resolve, but an admission of defeat, of showing how little we have engaged with whatever the bigger issue that belies the ban.
Instead of asking or addressing the roots of violent racism in the South in 2015—far too difficult, far too intimidating—we focus on symbols. If we take a flag down, if we remove a TV show from the schedules, it shows we are doing something. It shows our hearts are in the right places.
The braver thing for those “good old” lawmakers would be to make strong speeches about the iniquity of extreme racism, which time and wider social progress has done little to weaken. As well as taking flags down, there would be an effort to make hate crime laws stronger and more sophisticated. There would be a concerted effort to target hate groups.
There would be a practical effort to teach children, unflinchingly and honestly, about the history of minority hatred in schools. The aim would be to bleed racism and homophobia as much as possible out of the civic bloodstream using whatever means necessary, and to be proud of doing so.
Of course, the Confederate flag should be taken down, of course the flag should not fly anywhere in public—but that gesture should be part of a broader, entrenched campaign against the kind of extreme prejudice that bore the Charleston massacre.
Removing a flag, banning a flag, is not enough on its own, and it’s a smothering tactic to make us all feel better to suggest otherwise.
In circumstances like this, banning is understandable, even admirable. We have to be seen to be doing something, reacting somehow.
Our culture today is entirely reactive, as if collectively we are 24/7 being tapped on our knees by little doctors’ hammers, primed to agree or disagree on whatever issue commands our attention in the moment.
Social media has increased the speed of all kinds of debate, and the endgame of these debates is predicated on whichever constituency is most vocal in the moment.
The court of public opinion is really a giant school playground.
Donald Trump is now reaping the whirlwind of saying incredibly stupid, racist things about Mexican immigrants. In response, NBC dumped him. Macy’s dumped him. The hosts of Miss USA pulled out of hosting his outdated, sexist mess of a contest.
When Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich was revealed to have given money to a Proposition 8-supporting campaign, he resigned—the Right moaning he was the victim of gay-rights “fanatics.”
And now the Right are cleaving to religious freedoms—which are nothing of the sort, merely a license to discriminate by any other name—to try to ban anti-discrimination laws.
Now, the Right is using the same poor-us whining tactic in last-ditch attempts to ward off Supreme Court-sanctioned marriage equality.
Whether you agree or not with the winning side of these controversies, the market spoke in all cases: Nothing was banned, but rather a very fast, concerted stand was taken; one side was simply outflanked by the other.
Banning is the flipside to this culture of knee-jerk response. It closes down debate immediately. Indeed, there is no debate, no matter how fast and furious debate happens these days in the ridiculous echo chamber of Twitter.
The ban is like the thud of a drum.
But ban something, push it underground, make it verboten—and you only increase its cachet among devotees. You only increase its allure for those who want to search it out.
Is The Dukes of Hazzard really a racist-enough curio to ban? Is that what we think when we watch it? I watched the opening titles tonight, and a sequence of those bone-shaking stunts. It just seemed puerile, harmless.
Sure, you can read The Dukes of Hazzard with a darker edge: Boss Hogg is a classic, venal Southern man-mountain of grotesque gluttony and corruption, who runs the local police force.
There is moonshine, the heroes are hicks, the bad guys are uglier hicks; and Daisy is thinly conceived eye candy.
As a 10-year-old I loved it. Now do I like it? No. Do I think people should have a right to watch it if they want? Sure. Does banning it show society at its most mature? Does it make as much resonant sense as taking a flag down from a flagpole? No.
We can rightly outlaw hate speech or hateful words that incite violence, but we can’t ban bigotry. Indeed, we should face it, acknowledge it, name it, confront it, and fight it. Taking a flag down or banning that flag from a TV show, frankly, is the easy bit.
The horror of Charleston is still so acute we want our reaction to it to be as definitive and acute. But what has been lacking in the coverage of the event is recognition at the scale and nature of racism that belies it.
We have praised the grace of the victims, and the grace of those that mourn them. We have praised the grace of Charleston. The desire seems to be to major on this “grace” and something edifying to counteract the horror, and then swiftly do something to express our resolve.
We ban the flags. We take the flags down.
But how should we teach future generations about racism if we have placed so many of its most controversial, upsetting artifacts as off-limits, or out of the realms of conversation? If a Confederate flag doesn’t belong on a flagpole, and it doesn’t belong on bygone reruns of a TV show, where does it belong?
Some, like President Obama and Jeb Bush, have suggested a museum (isn’t TV Land really a museum itself?), and others, like Aleia Brown, in an illuminating Slate essay, have said not—because museums have such a bad track record on presenting race thoughtfully.
Brown suggests placing the Confederate flag at the Emanuel AME Church as a lasting reminder of the work of those who were murdered by someone who believed in white supremacy.
It’s a powerful idea, but a place of celebration and of change would immediately become frozen itself in that awful moment. The Confederate flag would still, in this context, retain its power to control and upset, in the place where the strength of its worshippers, rather than their murderer and his twisted racism, should be in the foreground.
Our culture needs to be able to contain the flag, the prejudice it enshrines, and the means to confront and tackle both.
Do I want to hear homosexuality “debated” any more? Do I like to hear the right to equality as a gay person “debated” as if there is anything to “debate”? Not really, and one day we may roll our eyes that we ever did.
But our imperfect society isn’t as grown up and evolved as we’d like it to be. It sometimes only evolves through painful conversation and pain of much worse kinds.
The flag will remain charged whether publicly visible or not, and so TV Land banning The Dukes of Hazzard is a banal gesture of how little we are prepared to confront the horror of Charleston, the continuing gritty day-to-day horror of all kinds of hatred aimed at all kinds of minorities.
We want, with the best will of course, to make things better, to feel better about ourselves, to not acknowledge the grime of bigotry and prejudice we like to think we have polished and wiped away.
Hide the flag away, make it unpalatable and “the other,” and we hide away from all the difficult discussions we need to have around racism. So show it, exhibit it, shame it in full view of future generations.
Banning may feel good in the moment, what is being fermented in the silence and gaps banning something brings? Drive prejudice underground and you make it more dangerous and extreme.
Displaying the Confederate flag in a glass case, or on a TV screen, or wherever feels most sensible and sensitive, may seem hard.
We may hate to look at it, but that flag is part of a nasty, problematic chapter of American history, with a horrible, insistent presence remaining today. We run the risk of it becoming part of a darker future by hiding it away.