In this country, it seems that you can always get an argument going about "race" as long as it is guaranteed to be phony, but never when it is real. Almost every day brings news of full-dress media-oriented spats about Don Imus, Bob Grant, or the recent nonstory about how some golf show had managed to mention Tiger Woods and the word lynch in the same news cycle. The preceding week had involved some trivial but intense parsing of an exchange between Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But just let the real thing occur, with a full-blooded and full-throated bellow of old-fashioned authentic racism, and you can see the entire press refusing to cover it for fear of having to confront the real and unvarnished thing (and perhaps for reasons having to do with other "sensitivities" as well).
Gov. Mike Huckabee made the following unambiguously racist and demagogic appeal in Myrtle Beach, S.C., last week:
You don't like people from outside the state coming in and telling you what to do with your flag. In fact, if somebody came to Arkansas and told us what to do with our flag, we'd tell 'em what to do with the pole; that's what we'd do.
This is a straightforward racist appeal for the following reasons:
1) The South Carolina flag is a perfectly nice flag, featuring the palmetto plant, about which no "outsider" has ever offered any free advice.
2) The Confederate battle flag, to which Gov. Huckabee was alluding, was first flown over the South Carolina state Capitol in 1962, as a deliberately belligerent riposte to the civil rights movement, and is not now, and never has been, the flag of that great state.
3) By a vote of both South Carolina houses in the year 2000, the Confederate battle flag ceased to be flown over the state capitol and now only waves (as quite possibly it should) over the memorial to fallen Confederate soldiers.
Thus, as well as crassly behaving exactly like someone "from outside the state coming in and telling you what to do with your flag," former Gov. Huckabee of Arkansas deliberately aligned himself with the rancorous minority who are still not reconciled to the idea that South Carolina may not officially consecrate racism and slavery and secession. "Your flag"? What an insult, not just to the descendants of slavery but to the many, many other loyalists and Unionists who fought and died to bring their state back into the Union. And what is the point of the "outside the state" slur? Wasn't this exactly what Gov. Orval Faubus of Arkansas used to say, as if to make it seem that all was hunky-dory in his own tight little dominion until them goddam "outside agitators" arrived? In the end, as Gov. Huckabee may or may not recall, the 101st Airborne Division, most of them "outsiders" not from Arkansas, had to be sent by a Republican president to integrate the schools of Little Rock. That was a lot of trouble and expense that the big-mouth rednecks put us all to, but it was worth it. It's insufferable to hear this glib idiot make a mockery of it now in order to try to get the Klan vote in South Carolina.
One might add a couple of other points. The political flag of the Confederacy—the so-called "Stars and Bars"—is one thing. The battle flag of the Confederate army, the most militant symbolic form that secession and slavery ever took, is quite another. Under this fiery cross of St. Andrew, the state of Pennsylvania was invaded and free Americans were rounded up and re-enslaved. Under this same cross, it was announced that any Union officer commanding freed-slave soldiers, or any of his men, would be executed if captured. (In other words, war crimes were boasted of in advance.) The 13 stars of the same flag include stars for two states—Kentucky and Missouri—that never did secede, and they thus express a clear ambition to conquer free and independent states. And this is the symbol that Huckabee, seeking to ingratiate himself with the lowest element and lowest common denominator, calls "your flag." You might as well do a cross-burning and have done with it, and we all know how the networks would react if some ignorant kids did that.
But when real political racism rears its head, our easily upset media fall oddly silent. Can you guess why? Of course you can. Gov. Huckabee is the self-anointed candidate of the simple and traditional Christian folk who hate smart-ass, educated, big-city types, and if you dare to attack him for his vulgarity and stupidity and bigotry, he will accuse you of prejudice in return. What he hopes is that his neo-Confederate sickness will become subsumed into easy chatter about his recipes for fried squirrel and his other folksy populist themes. (By the way, you owe it to yourselves to watch the exciting revelations about his squirrel-grilling past; and do examine his family Christmas card while you're at it.) But this drivel, it turns out, is all a slick cover for racist incitement, and it ought not to be given a free pass.
And not merely racist incitement. So slack is our grasp of history and principle that we seem unable to think of the Confederacy as other than "offensive" to blacks. But there are two Republican candidates in this election—the absurd and sinister Ron Paul being the other—who choose this crucial moment in our time to exalt those who attempted to destroy the Union by force, and those who solicited the help of foreign powers in order to do so, and whose treason led to the violent deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans. Should their patriotism be questioned? I would say most definitely yes, and questioned repeatedly, at that, perhaps especially if they are seeking the nomination of the party of Lincoln.
In Washington, D.C., Gov. Huckabee has hired as smooth and silky a pair of big-city insiders as you could meet in a day's march: Ed Rollins and James Pinkerton. Elegant ornaments of many a past administration and many a well-heeled think tank (Pinkerton describes himself loftily as "a Burkean conservative and a Nixonian foreign-policy realist"), they know exactly what calculation lies behind their boss' smarmy appeals to the uneducated racists and losers and to the fools who believe that Adam and Eve were real (and recent) people. But do they endorse his street tactics as well? I, for one, would rather like to find out. Here's a genuine scandal about racism, and waddaya know? My great profession is absolutely determined to overlook it.