Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Arthur Answers, Part 3: Flags and national discussions

Today’s “Ask Arthur” answer combines separate questions, something I do when they’re thematically linked in some way. This also gives me the chance to talk about a related New Zealand national discussion currently in the news.

Roger Green asked on Facebook:

“Give me your take on how the Confederate battle flag from Virginia almost overnight became toxic? And how far should it go? Should it include removing from Confederate cemeteries, clothing, Dukes of Hazzard model cars?”

I think it’s pretty clear now that it happened because of the reaction to the racist mass murder in Charleston, South Carolina. Many people throughout the USA were shocked (whether they should have been is another matter), and they wanted to “do something”, and in a way that didn’t mean they actually had to, well, do anything. The non-Confederate flag, as I’ve called, provided a clear and easy symbol. That’s why I think it became so toxic, as Roger put it, almost overnight.

I also think that South Carolina did the right thing in removing the flag from the grounds of the South Carolina capital. The flag was there as a compromise: In 1961, South Carolina raised the Tennessee battle flag over their dome supposedly to commemorate the start of the Civil War when the secessionists fired on Ft. Sumter in Charleston Harbor. However, TIME Magazine thought it was more of a middle finger to the civil rights movement.

In 2000, the flag was removed from the capital dome, and the smaller battle flag was placed next to a Confederate memorial. I congratulated the state (the first time I’ve ever done so on this blog) when the legislature voted to remove the flag, and I celebrated when it finally came down altogether—peacefully, I might add. Since then, white supremacists have rallied in support of that flag, thereby proving the point of the vast majority who wanted the flag removed, that it was nothing but a symbol of racism.

I honestly don’t know about removing the flag from pop culture, though I tend to think it’s the right thing to do. Still, that’s a decision that’s been made by retailers alone, and it is absolutely their right to do so. In the current climate, however, it would have been foolhardy for them do to otherwise.

I also don’t think that any non-official Confederate flag (like the battle flags of Virginia or Tennessee) should ever be flown over Confederate cemeteries or monuments because it’s not historically accurate or true. That’s why I’m less troubled by flying the real and official flag of the Confederate States of America in such places, though it may be difficult to agree on which flag of several to fly (although the flag of the US State of Georgia may point the way). The official CSA national flag also doesn’t have the same racist legacy of the battle flags (in the post-Civil War sense). Others may disagree.

Roger also asked a question that’s related to this topic:

“Someone asked me this recently, and here's variation: How can a ‘national conversation’ take place in the US? What topics ought to be discussed? And ditto this for New Zealand.”

Real national conversations can only happen organically, that is, people start talking about a topic because it concerns them in some way. The news media can lead the people to an issue, but they can’t make them think. So, it’s impossible to say what topics “ought” to be discussed, because people choose that for themselves.

When the people have a national conversation that the news media may not even notice, it can change things dramatically, and the turnaround in support for marriage equality is a prefect example of that. People having quiet conversations in their families can change all of society, and lead to new political realities and paradigms.

However, when the news media drive national conversations, it seldom matters because in almost every circumstance the discussions end up being nothing more than verbal circle jerks: People talk about how Something Must Be Done, and convince themselves that merely talking about it IS doing something. In relatively rare cases, something actually results, and the removal of the non-Confederate flag is a good example of this. It allowed even relatively conservative people to feel that by supporting removal of that flag they were Doing Something about racism—violent racism in particular—when, in fact, nothing has actually changed apart from removing an egregious symbol of that violent racism.

In the USA, there have been many media-led national discussions about big issues, but nothing has changed with gun laws despite frequent mass shootings. Similarly, virtually nothing has been done to clean up police behaviour toward minorities, despite the many well-publicised police shootings of unarmed black people.

In New Zealand, nothing has changed with child poverty, domestic violence (especially violence against children), income inequality and social deprivation, or even overseas investors buying up houses in Auckland and making prices soar beyond the reach of ordinary Kiwis—despite all these things being frequent topics of national discussions driven by the news media.

Now, someone less cynical than I am (which, to be fair, is most people…) could reasonably argue that nothing changes because people don’t know what to do, and, being people, they eventually lose interest in an issue. I think that’s true, and that people want quick and easy “solutions”. But I also think that most people don’t want to have to take personal action, personal responsibility, or make a personal sacrifice to effectively deal with an issue. Maybe that’s not their fault, and it’s really because of the rank cowardice and amorality of most politicians, who, because of whatever personal failing, never offer real solutions.

And then, sometimes people are just idiots or arseholes.

We’ve seen that with the non-Confederate flag debate in which some people deliberately ignored reality to argue that a symbol of racism and racist violence was, in fact, merely part of their “heritage” (what, do they have a white hood and robe hanging in their closet, too?).

In New Zealand, we see this with the current debate over whether New Zealand should change its national flag (apparently, flags can be quite contentious…). The entire focus of the discussion in New Zealand has been over how the process is costing us $26 million at a time when there’s so much need. That’s a fair criticism, but totally irrelevant: There WILL be a referendum to pick an alternative flag, and there WILL be a referendum for people to choose between the current flag or the alternative. Neither fact will change, no matter how much people complain about the cost, which is the main focus of the news media's "national conversation".

So, in my opinion, “national conversations” are generally overrated, producing little of substance when they’re driven by the news media. What DOES change things are those quiet, self-started conversations within families and among friends, almost invariably without the news media even noticing. That kind of unnoticed “national conversation” can change everything, and it’s not something that anyone can control or manage, but when enough people care about a topic to start discussing it without the news media pushing it, then real, substantive change can happen.

I do wish it happened more often, though.

There’s still time to ask questions! Here’s how: First, you can leave a comment on this post (anonymous comments are okay). You can also email me your question (and you can even tell me to keep your name secret, although, why not pick a nom du question?). And, for the first time, you can also ask questions on the AmeriNZ Facebook page.

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