Friday, June 19, 2015

History's stain

The past isn't dead. It isn't even past.
-- William Faulkner

And so time marches on, and it takes yet another mad spasm to reveal what we should have seen all along: That too much of the marching has mostly been in place.

A bomb goes off in a church in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, and four African-American girls die.

A racial terrorist opens fire in another church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015, and nine more African-Americans die.

Fifty-two years between the two, and yet here we are, prisoners of the same noxious loop. The same lunatic fantasies consume us ("You rape our women," Dylann Roof said before allegedly opening fire, reciting the weary catechism of Jim Crow).  The same deniers deny (FoxNews, whose working motto is "Racism? Nope, no racism here, by golly" declared against all rational thought that  Roof's target was Christians, not black people).  And the same protectionist jargon ("Lone wolf" "Mentally ill") gets trotted out to duck the home truth that, yes, this was an act of terrorism, even if the perpetrator was not, you know, Muslim.

It's true the man in South Carolina who'd sit with people for an hour and then pull out a gun and execute them is not right in the head. But neither is the man in the Middle East who'd strap a bomb to his chest and blow himself and a busload of women and children to shards. It's all of a piece -- and if both men wound up in roughly the same place, they did not get there alone.

Someone pointed the way down that dark road. Someone instilled the diseased ideologies they served. In the landscape of madness, there are no lone wolves.

Indisputably, we are a better nation now than we were in 1963. A black man is in the White House. A stretch of two-lane asphalt in Mississippi is dedicated to three civil rights workers murdered by Mississippi's sons in 1964. Blacks in that state are actually allowed to vote now.

But then something like this happens, and you wonder about that endless loop again. You see what flies on the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse this day, and you marvel again at how well William Faulkner knew his South.

What flies there is the Confederate flag.

It flies there proudly.

It flies, proudly, at full staff, even as state and national flags atop the statehouse have been lowered.

It flies, proudly, as South Carolina's governor, Nikki Haley, justifies it with confused rhetoric about unoffended CEOs and how her state has put its dark, seditious past behind it because it elected her, an Indian-American.

It flies. Proudly.

And if there's a valid point to be made that lowering it would only confer legitimacy on what is, at bottom, a mere historical relic, it's equally valid to point out that common decency demands you do so, if only for awhile. Symbolism matters, and the symbolism here is powerful: The flag of a wanna-be racist nation flying proudly in the wake of a racist act of violence carried out by one of that wanna-be nation's spiritual descendants.

Symbolism matters. It certainly mattered to Dylann Roof, who picked his target with both malice and purpose aforethought. The church he chose is one of the most historic African-American churches in the nation. It was founded by Denmark Vesey, who led a slave revolt in the 1820s and got himself hanged for it. The descendants of those who did the hanging were the ones who gave birth to the Confederacy, established on the proposition that men like Vesey were not men at all, but beasts of burden whose enslavement was enshrined in the Confederate constitution.

A century of Confederate apologists trying to ennoble that proposition cannot change its essential truth. It cannot change the inescapable conclusion that when Roof struck out at Denmark Vesey's church, he was striking a blow for the idea that killed Vesey, and for the wanna-be nation that arose from that idea.

A hundred years ago, Dylann Roof would have marched proudly behind that nation's flag.

Today, it flies proudly outside the South Carolina statehouse.

I can't conceive, under the circumstances, of anything so egregiously tone-deaf.

And so, for once, to hell with the bruised sensibilities of neo-Confederates. Take the damn thing down. Take it down for decency's sake. Take it down for the sake of history. Take it down to break that lunatic loop the Dylann Roofs of the world seem so determined to inflict upon us forever, world without end, amen.

Take it down.



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