I was astonished that Walmart decided to stop selling Confederate flag-themed merchandise. Astonished like I was when Richard Nixon, Mr. Anti-Communism, went to China, deciding that his and others’ decades’ long campaign to demonize countries with communist governments was a strategy going nowhere and, besides, it was hurting the balance of trade big time. Even though there was an economic motive, the doing of it, seeing this rabid anti-Communist strolling the Great Wall and smiling at Chinese leaders was worth getting up in the middle of the night to watch it on live TV. (It was in 1972 for all you history buffs out there.)
That’s what it takes. The retail king of the earth, born in the deepest South, just deciding to stop selling Confederate goods. Done. It didn’t take them weeks or months of pondering, they just pulled the plug. And then Amazon and Sears and then big flag manufacturers followed suit. Who would have cast Walmart as a moral leader?
In this case, that’s exactly what Walmart is. The company immediately marginalized the Confederate flag and people who think it’s an appropriate symbol to use on their homes, their cars, their clothing. Walmart, of all places, is redefining what is appropriate in our great American culture. I’m sure they’ll make money on it somehow but I don’t care.
So all of a sudden what was always impossible – changing the culture of racism in the U.S. – becomes somewhat less impossible than we thought. Mitt Romney, another unexpected hero, just flat out says the Confederate flag should come down. Unsuccessful and more than a little weird as a presidential candidate, he came off as presidential, just for once saying what he believed without his typical parsing and fine combing. And the President, another hero in my book for saying the N-word out loud and in public and just putting it out there. Stop the masquerade people, he was saying, this is the deal. Listen to the deal. I loved him for that.
Yes, I know it’s just a flag.
And I know more than you might think about racism and the history of slavery in the United States.
So, no, I don’t think we’re in the clear now. The flag is just a symbol, that’s true. But its effect has been to normalize racism everywhere the flag was displayed. That it represented some kind of noble history is a joke. It has been lying posturing to say it really stood for the much-admired General Robert E. Lee and all the other courageous men who vote in the Civil War to protect, don’t you know, state’s rights because, of course, that’s a principle warranting an enormous murderous war rather than a compromise fashioned in rooms with tall windows that look out on to green lawns and rose gardens. The justifications for the Confederate flag go in my personal category of Biggest Crocks Ever Perpetuated.
Right. The Civil War was about slavery. And so is the flag. Everybody knows that. A good old boy riding around town in his Ford pick-up with a Confederate flag decal on the back window was just saying his thing – ‘I’ll always be better than you.’ So now, it gets harder for Joe-Bob to get his Confederate decal. No big deal. But after a while, people who have the decals are the hold-outs, the true-blues, the way far ends of the bell curve. Good. We want that. We want them to be freaks.
The message here is that we need to love the unexpected messenger. We need to love poor ill-fated Richard Nixon for going to China and we need to love Walmart for stuffing all its Confederate flags back into the boxes they were shipped in (probably from China) and tossing them out the door. We need to love Mitt Romney and President Obama for saying what’s true. And we need to always make it safe for those who know the right thing but hide it to stand up in public and be proud. What’s right is right and what’s wrong is wrong. Bless the folks who go against type to say what’s true.
We owe them.