Driving up North 27th Street on Saturday, I met an oncoming pickup truck with a Confederate battle flag proudly waving from its tailgate.
No, wait. Flags can’t wave proudly. Pride, and any other emotion attached to flags, come only from the humans who view them.
So for a moment I wanted to pull a U-turn and chase the truck down—not to object but just to ask why, given the events of the last week, one would choose that particular day to fly that particular flag.
Southern pride? Overt racism? In-your-face First Amendment protest statement? An obscure tribute to the 14th Amendment, which resulted from the war lost by the people who carried that flag into battle?
I didn’t get a chance to ask.
But talk about a paradigm shift. Thomas Kuhn used that phrase in his famous book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” to describe how scientists may resist for years a new theory, such as that the Earth revolves around the sun or that life cannot spontaneously generate. The new idea gains adherents, slowly at first, then seemingly all at once, and suddenly scientists see the world in an entirely different light.
Kuhn restricted the concept of paradigm shift to the hard sciences, but it’s hard not to see it at work in other areas of life. A couple of weeks ago, the Confederate flag seemed sacrosanct in certain regions of the country. Now it seems doomed to disappear.
Just a few years ago, state after state rejected giving gays and lesbians the right to marry others of the same sex. But by the time the Supreme Court upheld that right on Friday, most Americans accepted gay marriage.
Conservative talk radio hosts make their living through outrage, so it can be hard to tell when the outrage is genuine. But they were as outraged as I have ever heard them on the day of the gay marriage ruling. I wonder why. The ruling was consistent with the general trend in recent decades to get government out of the business of deciding who may marry.
When I was a kid, interracial couples could not marry in many states. Adultery was a criminal offense. Couples who wished to divorce had to jump through a series of legal hoops.
Now nearly all of that has gone away, a paradigm shift consistent with the conservative notion that government should keep its nose out of people’s personal lives. In a generation, perhaps, the argument over same-sex marriage will seem as dated as the argument on interracial marriage now seems.
The rapid decline of the Confederate flag is a more remarkable event. It was occasioned not by legal action but by a hideous crime committed by a racist who held the flag sacred. The paradigm shifted: Suddenly, it became obvious to almost everybody that waving a symbol of racist oppression in the faces of the oppressed was unwise and unjust.
Let’s just hope the paradigm does not shift too far. I don’t mean too far in the sense proposed by Rush Limbaugh, who argues that the next target will be the American flag. As Jon Stewart pointed out, Limbaugh apparently has forgotten that the greatest threat the U.S. flag ever faced was posed by people who waved the Confederate flag.
I mean instead a full-scale attack on the memories and reputations of all those who fought on the wrong side of that war. New York Times columnist David Brooks has written that next to go should be most street names and buildings named after Robert E. Lee, who commanded Rebel forces in the Civil War. Lee placed loyalty to his native state of Virginia above loyalty to the nation, a concept of patriotism that sounds quaint only because the Civil War made it so.
Some Confederates are harder to defend. Jefferson Davis was a political hack. Nathan Bedford Forrest was a brilliant cavalry leader who also founded the Ku Klux Klan.
But few 19th century Americans held racial views that would be politically acceptable today. Lee himself may not have been much more of a racist than the Great Emancipator himself, Abe Lincoln. Lee called slavery a “moral and political evil.” Lincoln hated slavery but believed that whites and blacks could never live in harmony and it would be better to send freed slaves back to Africa.
Even thousands of Union soldiers who never did anything with their adult lives except sacrifice them to end slavery held views about race that would get them ostracized today. Surely they have earned redemption.
The true measure of early Americans must not be how close their attitudes were to acceptable racial views today. Rather, it must be whether they made things better or worse.
George Washington owned slaves but won the independence that made America possible. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves but wrote the words that made freedom for all inevitable.
Robert E. Lee might have served America better if he had been a less capable foe on the battlefield. But he did the honorable thing by insisting on opposing the Union in a conventional war that stacked the odds against him. Unwilling to fight an unending battle of attrition in the South, he attacked the North. And when that lost the war, he, like Lincoln, urged reconciliation and peace.
The memorials that honor him should stand. But the flag he carried into battle should not. We’ve shifted enough paradigms for one month.
David Crisp has worked for newspapers since 1979. He has been editor and publisher of the Billings Outpost since 1997. The Outpost is published every Thursday and is available for free all over Billings and in nearby communities.