June 24th, 2019


Notes on a common malady

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published July 24, 2015

Vexiphobia, n., an irrational fear of flags.

--Online Medical Dictionary

It's an epidemic sweeping the country, wiping out memory and reason. Its symptoms are showing up everywhere from Charleston to Richmond to the U.S. Capitol, where the speaker of the House -- John Boehner -- said the other day he didn't believe Confederate flags should be permitted in national parks. Or even in national cemeteries. Not even the dead are to be exempt from this latest, politically correct decree. And growing fad.

No doubt there are sites where the Confederate ensign should never have been raised at all in these post-bellum times, like over the state Capitol of South Carolina, where it didn't appear till circa 1961, when the segs needed an honorable symbol to disguise their dishonorable cause.

But now removing Confederate emblems has become all the rage, literally. Every trace of the Old Confederacy, it's said, must be purged from American life -- street names, college dormitories, those magnificent statues along Monument Avenue in old Richmond, the sculptures of various American statesmen in Statuary Hall at the nation's Capitol ... all must go down the memory hole.

There's no doubt that the old, antebellum South ("Southern civilization") was based on the Peculiar Institution, a euphemism for human slavery, and that the Confederacy was formed to preserve that slave society. And the whole idea of white supremacy behind it. The same evil would be perpetuated after The War under other names, like Jim Crow and then Massive Resistance to the law of the land. But the flag itself isn't evil, unlike the racism it was used to disguise.

"The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones." Like the heroism, gallantry and self-sacrifice of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, which may have been chivalry's last appearance in warfare before modernity arose like a mushroom cloud.

Lest we forget, it was a Union general, William Tecumseh Sherman, who told us war is hell, and proceeded to make it so. Even while Robert E. Lee was warning his troops against taking vengeance against the civilian population as they moved north toward their rendezvous with destiny at a little crossroads town in Pennsylvania called Gettysburg, where The War would be decided and the Lost Cause lost.

But the war after The War lingers on in debates over displaying the Confederate flag, and so do the bad feelings. Good and evil still mix even if today's vexiphobes can see only evil in the other side. That's not history, it's ideology. It's amnesia become a political cause. And nothing good can come of it, for without a measure of understanding, much less forgiveness, we'll all wind up wallowing in our own overweening self-righteousness. And these dishonored dead will only be the latest of The War's casualties. Along with a decent tolerance for the feelings of others.

Abraham Lincoln proposed a better course in his immortal Second Inaugural even as the tragic conflict was winding down at last:

"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

Instead we would now exact vengeance, and dishonor even the dead. It's a terrible thing, the kind of pride that has no room for charity -- and tends to go before a fall.

It's all enough to bring back a more recent instance of pride gone mad. Back in the not very sane year 1966, Charles de Gaulle decided that France could do without the American troops that had come to its rescue not just once but twice in the 20th century, and declared that he was taking France out of the North Atlantic alliance. All those American troops still on French soil would have to leave. So had Le Grand Charles decreed.

Lyndon Johnson had only one question when his secretary of state, Dean Rusk, informed him that the French president wanted all American troops out of his country. "Ask him about the cemeteries," said the American president and commander-in-chief. Should our dead be moved, too? And when Dean Rusk hesitated to put that question to the French leader, LBJ insisted: "Ask him about the cemeteries, Dean!" And when Dean Rusk did, the French president, embarrassed, had no answer.

At least Charles de Gaulle was capable of embarrassment, which is more than one can say about today's vexiphobes, who propose to dig up Confederate graves on public property and expunge Confederate monuments from national cemeteries. And maybe the national memory. Madness, madness.

And the more contagious this madness, the more dangerous it can be. For he whom the gods would destroy, to quote the ancient proverb, they first make mad.

Better to follow the advice of a Union general named U.S. Grant, who said, simply and wisely, "Let us have peace."

You'd think the vexiphobes would have learned by now that outlawing a flag, like forbidding the use of a word, only gives it more power over us -- and lends it the aura of the forbidden. Like telling little Johnny not to put beans up his nose. It's one way to make sure he will.

You might as well tell juveniles of all ages that they'd better not wave the Confederate flag around. Which just about guarantees that they will. And this flag war will continue.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.