Equilibrium is the balancing of competing influences. Every grade-school science teacher who has taught the concept has used the see-saw example. Two children of equal weight on a see-saw will be at equilibrium as long as they are still. If one child applies force, the balance vanishes unless the opposing child applies an equal force in the opposite direction. From the Civil War forward, American politics followed the same “push-me, pull-me” dynamic. Capitalist robber barons run amok begat labor unions who begat right-to-work laws which begat federal regulation of the work place which begat …ad infinitum. Which meant no matter where you were on the see-saw, there was hope that you could rise if you just applied enough push. Register more voters to your cause, donate more money, work a little harder and your see-saw position would improve, although it would rarely dominate for long.
On the 4th of July, Mrs. Nester and I took in the fireworks over Lake Cleburne. While there, we saw at least six pick-ups flying large Confederate battle flags, presumably in protest over South Carolina’s decision to remove that flag from its capitol. Two days ago, someone messaged me that there was move afoot to force a name change at Robert E. Lee high school in San Antonio. I am guessing that the proponents of the name change believe Lee’s name no longer worthy of honor given a generalship in support of slave states. These two events have me thinking about how we keep our equilibrium and the hard falls to come.
Lets start with the Confederate flag. To be clear, no one is arguing that Cleburne pick-up truck drivers do not have the legal right to fly the stars and bars. The First Amendment must protect offensive speech to have meaning, which is why it is legal to fly a Nazi flag. Suggesting Confederate symbols should be treated differently is a non-starter. But that begs the question: should the government honor its Confederate heritage, particular at the seat of its power?
The answer has to be no. We will get to the slavery question in a moment; for now lets focus on the easy part. The Confederate flag represents a nation-that is the purpose of a flag. There is no denying that the Confederacy is part of the history of South Carolina. Just like Mexico is part of the history of Texas, France is part of the history of Louisiana and England is part of the history of Virginia. There is no more reason to fly a Confederate flag in Columbia than there is to fly a Mexican flag in Austin, a French flag in Baton Rouge or an English flag in Richmond. When stated in the abstract it is a simple rule I am guessing most people agree with: “no foreign flags over our capitols.”
Add to the “no foreign flags rule” what this particular foreign nation tried to do. Again, set aside the why for a moment. The undeniable historical fact is the Confederacy tried to destroy the United States of America by force. The “War of Northern Aggression” started with shots fired on–not by–the Union army at Fort Sumter. The political goal of the secessionists was to govern by region rather than be part of a continent-spanning empire. In other words, the secessionists wanted North America to be like Europe. Had the secessionists prevailed, the idea of American Exceptionalism would not exist; the greatest force for democracy the world has ever known would be a bunch of squabbling small nation states with no more say in the world than Finland or Poland. So I modify the rule: “No foreign flags from nations that tried to destroy the United States should fly over our capitols.”
Which brings us to the states rights/slavery question and its self-evident answer. The South seceded to protect the right of states to determine the slavery question. It also wanted to protect the right of the states to decide a bunch of other questions, but those other questions did not cause the fight. The South could and did compromise on tariffs, taxes or internal improvements; it could not compromise on slavery. Even if you do not agree, there is no escaping that the Confederacy was one of the last nations on earth to condone slavery; barbarism at its worst. So if you see “heritage” in the flag, that is your business; you cannot claim that anyone who sees racial oppression in the same flag to be irrational. Thus, the icing on the cake: “No foreign flags from nations that tried to destroy the United States and represent racial oppression to some people should fly over our capitols.” Seems non-controversial to me.
But what of Robert E. Lee? Did he not head the treasonous army? Why do we honor a traitor? Again with the obvious. No person is perfect. If we are going to name things after people, there will always be some level of negative connotation attached; excepting, of course, “Jesus Christ High School,” which has other First Amendment problems. Not to mention no obvious mascot for the football team. Given human frailty, deciding whether a person is worthy of the honor involves weighing the good against the bad.
It should be clear that the weighing has to be in the context of that person’s life. If not, our renaming budget is going to explode. For instance, in response to a request for advice from a young man who believed himself gay:
So if you take Lee’s name from the high school because he was a racist based on modern standards, you cannot replace it with King’s name because he was a homophobe by modern standards. Edgar Allan Poe has schools named after him; he was court-martialed and dismissed from the Army and later fired for being drunk too often. Of course, many of our founding fathers were slave owners. If Lee has to go, shouldn’t Washington, Jefferson and Madison fall right in line? Of course not, because their good so heavily outweighs their bad.
So to weigh Lee’s good against his bad: like the others listed, Robert E. Lee was not perfect and he was on the wrong side of history on the question of secession. But if a traitor, he was a reluctant one:
Lee had served the country well and faithfully from his graduation at West Point in 1828 until the moment he resigned his commission in 1861. Lee might have been a “Son of the South,” yet he was not a plantation owner and he spent much of his life north of the Mason-Dixon line. Lee’s father had been a hero of the revolution, but had bankrupted and then abandoned the family. His mother survived on the kindness of her extended clan; Lee eventually married into George Washington’s family (Washington’s step-grandson was Lee’s father-in-law). Essentially, most of the Northern Virginia aristocracy had a hand in raising and protecting Lee. Those circumstances dug a deep reservoir of loyalty into Lee’s soul. When secession came he faced an intractable problem. Did he side with the country he loved or the sprawling family that had nurtured him since he had a young boy? Lee chose family:
Over the next four years, Lee’s prevailing emotion was anguish. Heading the Army of Northern Virginia was the last job he ever wanted. Once the job was his, he brilliantly commanded it, because he saw his duty to his men as allowing nothing less. When it was over he counseled reconciliation:
If that is a traitor so be it. But Lee’s life was not about the Confederacy; it was about duty, devotion and family. He was trapped; the burden was a terrible one and yet, he did his best. Any sensible person can see the nobility in him. For all time, but particularly in the context of his most trying time, Lee was extraordinary. To say his name conjures evil is to say you do not know him at all.
Which brings me back to equilibrium. A Confederate flag has no place over a statehouse and Robert E. Lee was a great man. But the red and blue people fight like hell to raise the flag or wash away the memory. Why is that? Why can we not see the obvious? Because we have changed the way we find our balance. Like Archimedes, we have realized that force comes not just from how hard we push, but from where we sit on the see-saw. When we sit close to one another it is impossible to get much higher or lower than the person across from us, no matter how hard we push. If we wriggle backwards, away from our companion, we can multiply our force by using the see-saw as a fulcrum. So that he can apply equal force, our companion wriggles backwards also, until we are miles apart.
So we find ourselves taking the most outrageous positions in an effort to reach our personal high point. But ask anyone who has lost the see-saw game how it feels when his companion quits playing. One moment you are above it all, soaring high over everyone, lord of the playground. The next moment, your friend stands up and walks away and you hurtle to earth with a resounding thud. On the playground, as in life, staking out the position farthest from the center is a dangerous proposition. Maybe it would be best for all of us if we squished into together a bit. I know what Lee would say: