Huckabee on the Flag
I thought that for sure this issue had died in American politics. Clearly, the reports of its demise were exaggerated. Yeah, it’s the “flag” issue. Not the “burning the flag” issue, the confederate flag issue. As has been reported in the news, (here, as well as criticism from the left here, and from the right here), Huckabee came out and asserted that he felt there was nothing wrong with flying the Confederate flag in front of government buildings, or displaying them inside such buildings, and so on. In taking this stand, he ‘called out’ the other Republican candidates to make a stand of their own. One so far, McCain, has come out against the displaying the flag. What should we make of all of this?
First, let’s call it what it is. Huckabee is shamelessly pandering, in the most transparent way, to a certain contingent of Republican voters in SC. After all, the issue of the Confederate flag isn’t even a live one in South Carolina politics anymore. The citizens of SC voted already to not display the flag on top of the statehouse (government property). So Huckabee’s tough-talk about how “no one tells people in my state what to do” is disingenuous and amusing, since no one is telling the people of SC what to do. Their own citizens did that. Do others outside of SC have opinions on it? Sure. But the federal government (or ‘the North’) isn’t making SC do anything with their flag.
Second, whether a person thinks that the Confederate battle flag should be prominently displayed (on government property or not) seems to depend on what you think the flag stands for. Some claim that is stands for nothing but (a) ‘southern pride’ whereas others think it is a symbol for (b) embraced (overtly or not) racism (just as much, I suppose, as some think that talk of “states’ rights” is code for something else).
Honestly, it’s hard to say what the flag means, because defining the nature of a particular symbol is a difficult thing to do. I have no doubt that for some individuals, the flag means just southern pride. Still, even if you buy this, it seems hard to believe that this is all it means because symbols are public. So even if some individuals say it means X, that doesn’t mean that as a symbol (a public icon) that X is it’s only meaning.
Part of what determines the meaning of a public symbol is the context in which it is employed. Part of this was, in the case of the flag, “the notion of the south as an entity.” After all, the flag was associated with the Confederacy. So there’s a sense in which it can legitimately stand for southern pride. But it was also used as the battle flag for a particular war, one which was fought over the right to have slaves (whether it was really a fight over ‘states’ rights’ seems a side point to me, given that it was over the states’ rights to have slaves in this case). So this can’t be left out of the context, whether one likes it or not. As a result, it’s hard to believe that the flag doesn’t carry — as a symbol — racist overtones. Moreover, the issue in SC brings this point out even more: the whole issue of being proud of the flag was non-existent in SC until 1962, when the SC establishment decided to display it publicly, clearly as a response to the civil rights movement (if you ask me, that adds some real context).
One thing is clear: whether the flag is only about racism, I can’t say. Probably not, though as a Northerner (living now in the Midwest), that’s pretty much all I see in it. I didn’t grow up in the south, so I don’t experience the symbol in that way. But I can acknowledge that it very well may have such significance in part (for some). But even if it’s not only about racism, old Dixie sure has been tainted heavily by it (even my wife, a native Arkansan, sees it primarily as about race). As a result, the question to me is a simple one: is it highly insensitive to fly it, given it’s checkered past? It seems to me that the answer to this question is a clear “yes”. Basically, it says “I don’t really care what many people think it stands for or if it offends them.” For an individual to say this is one thing; for the government of SC to say it is a different matter altogether. In any case, for me, in the end — if it’s not racist, it’s at least highly insensitive and callous. Or both.
Which says a lot to me about Huckabee, and something different about McCain (who, interestingly enough, supported this issue in 2000, and then later on took himself to task for it, calling it an act of “political cowardice” — a case of virtuous flip-flopping perhaps). Of course, depending on whether you think the flag stands for (a) or (b) says a lot about ‘who’ you think Huckabee is talking to in drudging up this defunct issue. He could be addressing the feeling of anti-elitism in the south (the “the north don’t tell us what to do” crowd) or he’s addressing a deep-seated racism in that area of the country, and telling them that “he’s one of them.” Even if he’s addressing (a), Huckabee isn’t an idiot. He surely knows about (b), and that makes him callous. If it’s (b), then he’s worse still.
In my opinion, a lose-lose for the Huck in as much as my judgment of him is concerned.
UPDATE: The panderer lost the SC primary. Karma must exist.