By a slim margin of 63-56, the South Carolina House of Representatives voted on May 10 to pull down the Confederate battle flag that has fluttered above the state’s capitol dome since 1962 and to remove it to “a place of honor” on the capitol grounds. The vote was the grand (or perhaps the petty) finale to a controversy that has lurked above and below the surface of South Carolina’s politics for much of the last decade and has now begun to haunt the politics of other Southern states and, indeed, that of the whole nation as well. Proponents of removing the Confederate flag from the capitol argued that the flag is, in the immortal and typically stilted phrasing of a 1991 resolution of the NAACP, “an odious blight upon the universe,” or, in the lesser eloquence of Sen. John McCain, “a symbol of racism and slavery.” Supporters of the flag argued, generally, that it was not a symbol of racism and slavery, though they seemed to disagree as to what it actually does symbolize— states’ rights, Southern independence, cultural tradition, or simply the martial virtues of honor, loyalty, courage, and willingness to sacrifice for a cause that most Americans, learned or not, associate with the Confederacy and its hapless warriors. Like all real symbols, the flag, in fact, symbolizes many different things, most of them intimately connected to each other in the enduring bond called “civilization.” If the meanings of symbols could be neatly translated into simple and clear language, there would be no need for symbolism at all.
The absence of a simple and clear slogan that encapsulates the real meaning of the flag, as opposed to the simple, clear, and false slogans that encapsulated its meaning for its enemies, may tell us a good deal about why the defenders of the flag lost and its foes prevailed, and it is ever thus in the continuing conflict between the forces of civilization and tradition, on the one hand, and barbarism, on the other. At no time since the French Revolution have the forces of tradition been able to enlist simplicity and clearness on their side, and the immense power that simplicity and clearness exert on the human mind is a major reason the enemies of tradition triumph. The power of tradition and its allies does not lie in the ability to justify themselves through logic but in their capacity to mobilize those who remain attached to tradition, and, almost by definition, in a declining civilization or one being challenged by the enemies of tradition, that capacity will continue to dwindle as the power of the challenge grows. So it was in South Carolina, where, as in most of the rest of the South, the memory and identity of its traditions have been dwindling for the last century, even as the power of its enemies— simple, clear, and profoundly evil—grew.
The NAACP and nitwits like John McCain are by no means the most dangerous enemies of Southern traditions. As noted, the NAACP has been crusading against the Confederate flag since at least 1991, but only this year was its crusade successful. It is impossible to account for its victory without considering the immense assistance it received from the Republican Party and the “capitalism” before which the party loves to prostrate itself. If it’s dangerous enemies you’re looking for, those two will give you a fight to the death any day.
The unreliability of the Republicans on the flag has been manifest since at least the early 1990s (some would say since the 1860s), when South Carolina’s Republican Gov. David Beasley actually violated a campaign promise he had made in 1994 not to try to remove the flag from the capitol dome and then at once proceeded to devote much of his ensuing administration to trying to do just that. He soon gathered the support of Sen. Strom Thurmond, former Gov. Carroll Campbell, the Christian Coalition, and all the rest of the repellent crew that performs under the Big Tent of the Grand Old Party. As it developed, the determination of the Republican establishment to get rid of the flag was of no avail, since a populist movement centered on defense of the flag stopped them from doing so. Gov. Beasley, whom Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed had boomed as a possible presidential candidate, was promptly bounced from office in the following election, largely because of his treachery over the flag issue.
Republican betrayal in the earlier flag controversy was grounded in a lust to gain Black votes that never materialized, but in the most recent battle, it was compounded by greed and fear, which the NAACP cleverly managed to incite. The campaign against the flag was joined to the NAACP’s proclamation of a national boycott of the state until the flag was removed from the capitol building, and since the boycott struck directly at the capitalist heart of the Republican Party and, indeed, at capitalism itself, it was a far more efficacious tactic than simply threatening to vote against politicians who refused to remove the flag. By targeting the business elites that call the shots in the GOP, which controls the majority in the South Carolina House, and the $14 billion tourist industry of the state, the NAACP actually struck at the heart of the modern South.
The role of Big Business in forcing the flag off the dome was clear at least as early as last year, when the New York Times ran an article discussing it. The article quoted Paula Harper Bethea, chairwoman of the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, as offering up most of the clichés that riddle the businessman brain in justification of removing the flag. “The shrinking world in which we live, the way technology has brought us together,” Miss Bethea beamed, “has made us come to realize that we are not islands unto ourselves. If we’re going to be part of the next millennium, we have to move that flag off our Statehouse dome and put it in a place of honor elsewhere.” Of course, the reason the NAACP demanded its removal was that it claimed the flag is a symbol of racism and slavery, and if that were so, why on earth would anyone want to “put it in a place of honor elsewhere”? The statement made little sense, but what was driving it was not sensibleness so much as the mere determination to make the controversy go away and get back to business. Michelin Tire Company, which has constructed a new plant in South Carolina to replace the textile mills put out of business by free trade, was also “particularly vocal about the need to move the flag off the dome,” the Times reported.
In Alabama, the same dynamic was evident. Capitalist Neal Wade, of a group called the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama, told the Times that the Confederate flag had to go because, “Anything that causes division within a state makes it less attractive to a potential employer, particularly from overseas,” and the Times itself commented that “the pressure is even greater to join the global economy, and foreign employers do not want the slightest hint of a divided work force or a reputation for backwardness.”
Conservatives—real conservatives, at least, not classical liberals and not neoconservatives—should not be surprised. Capitalism is at least as much an enemy of tradition as the NAACP or communism itself, for that matter, and those on the “right” who make a fetish of capitalism generally understand this and applaud it. The hostility of capitalism toward tradition is clear enough in its reduction of all social issues to economic ones. Moreover, like communism, capitalism is based on an egalitarianism that refuses to distinguish between one consumer’s dollar and another. The reductionism and egalitarianism inherent in capitalism explain its practical and destructive impact on social institutions. On the issue of immigration, capitalism is notorious for its demand for cheap labor that imports a new working class that undercuts the cost of native workers. But it is not merely in contemporary America that it has done so.
The capitalist agriculture of ancient Roman plantations imported slave labor for much the same reasons, with the result that by the end of the first century A.D., there were virtually no Romans, and not even many Italians, left in Italy, and so it has been throughout history. In South Africa, the main reason for the rejection of Prime Minister Verwoerd’s project of grand apartheid, under which the black majority would acquire their own independent states, was that South African and global capitalists needed black labor to exploit and to drive down the wages of white workers. It was for that reason that the South African Communist Party in its early days actually supported apartheid or something like it, since the party was then largely composed of white working-class members, to whose interests the party leadership was attentive. And, indeed, the same imperative of capitalism to import foreign labor as a means of undercutting the costs of domestic workers is apparent in the American South itself, where a main economic argument for black slavery was that it made white workers as well as production in general a lot cheaper. Today, of course, not only does global capitalism demand the importation of cheap labor through mass immigration but also, through free trade, manages to export its own production facilities to whatever country contains the cheaper labor. The capitalist Mohammed both goes to the mountain and also has the mountain come to him.
Nor should it be surprising that the Republicans who control the House of Representatives in South Carolina bent in the direction of the capitalist wind, even at the risk of their own political careers and explicit previous commitments. House Majority Leader Richard Quinn actually burst into tears after voting to remove the flag. “My vote was very difficult,” he whined to the press afterward. “It was the hardest vote I ever cast.” As Mrs. Frances Bell, state chairwoman of the Council of Conservative Citizens, remarked after the vote, “Many legislators lied.” Caught between the cultural and political rock that demanded the flag be kept waving over the capitol and the capitalist hard place that demanded it be pulled down so the state could be part of the new millennium, be brought together by technology, join the global economy, and avoid the slightest hint of a divided work force or a reputation for backwardness, the Republicans chose modernity—and the betrayal of their own state’s traditional identity.
The spat over the Confederate flag in South Carolina may seem to most Americans as, at best, a provincial imbroglio, but two facts combine to impart to it a national significance. First, with the emergence of a non-white majority in the United States because of mass immigration, there is every prospect that similar battles over other historic cultural symbols and icons will take place. Indeed, some years ago in San Jose, California, the local city council authorized the construction of a statue of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl in the city’s main square, instead of a statue to the American soldier who occupied San Jose for the United States during the Mexican war. There are a number of other instances of similar Hispanic acts of dispossession against traditional symbols, though none so far has quite compared to the NAACP’s perpetual war against the Confederacy.
Second, even with the emergence of a non-white majority and its hatred of traditional American cultural symbols, it is the willingness of ostensibly “conservative” forces, like the Republicans and capitalism itself (organized religion, in the form of the mainstream churches, is yet another), to support the war against these symbols that makes the war important and dangerous. In the long run, of course, the war is not confined to symbols but will extend to the people who have historically composed American civilization. At what point will pseudo-conservative forces like capitalism, mainstream religion, and the Republican Party abandon their mythologies and the powers that stand behind them and actually start defending their own civilization and people?
The betrayal of the Confederate flag by the Republicans and the capitalism by which the GOP is so hypnotized says as plainly as can be stated that neither institution can any longer be counted on as defenders of either Southern traditions or national and civilizational ones. There are few traditional Southerners who did not already know this, though most have supported the GOP since the 1960s in what was really an alliance of convenience for both sides, and most conservatives of all kinds have allied with capitalism against the more militant forms of egalitarianism of this century. But the entrancement of the Republicans by capitalism— and the disengagement of capitalism from every other social institution in pursuit of its own profits and its antagonism to any institution that presents an obstacle to profit—pitches the usefulness of these alliances in the garbage dump of history. If serious conservatives are going to salvage whatever remains of their civilization, in its local or national or civilizational forms, they will have to start working toward not only a new political vehicle but toward a new form of economic organization as well.
This article originally appeared in the August 2000 issue of Chronicles