History was being made almost willy-nilly last week. The effect is dizzying — and profound.
Between the time I write this and the time it is published, another prominent Southern political leader may well take a symbolic step away from the Confederacy. Already, the Republican leadership of South Carolina has committed to taking down the Confederate battle flag outside the state capitol. (Strom Thurmond's son, a state senator, endorsed the move.) The governor of Alabama had four Confederate flags unceremoniously removed from his state capitol grounds Wednesday morning. Sen. Roger Wicker, a Republican, echoed his state's Speaker of the House in calling for Mississippi's flag, which prominently features a Confederate flag, to be retired. Some leading Kentucky politicians endorsed moving a statue of Jefferson Davis from the state capitol.
A friend asked whether any sensible person wouldn't prefer, say, better education policies and less regressive taxation in Mississippi instead of a new flag. It's a valid question. But it may be that better policies are impossible without a new political context, one in which the flag — and all the bloody, dishonest, subterranean vice it represents — is laid to rest. Symbols matter: That's why we cherish them, wave them, flaunt them. Public symbols matter more.
No conservative politician in the South can afford to fully acknowledge what was going on last week; the political constituency for what Sally Jenkins called the "self-lying sentimental tide" of the Lost Cause is still too potent a source of votes and activism to be directly confronted. But across the South, the political context is changing before our eyes.
In the 1960s, the federal government forced Southern whites to grant blacks the right to vote, to serve in office, to participate in public life. But Southern whites never surrendered their symbols of domination. In the most charitable explanation, the Confederate battle flag enjoys its exalted place because white Southerners wish to honor the sacrifice of their ancestors.
The sacrifice of Confederate soldiers was indeed immense. Confederate armies wasted their lives by the tens of thousands, along with hundreds of thousands of innocent Union soldiers, in a singular quest: to keep blacks forever enslaved and subject to torture, rape and murder. That certainly speaks of commitment.
But commitment to barbarism is difficult to defend, even after decades of practice in the art of obfuscation. You cannot venerate the Confederate soldier's sacrifice without degrading the ideal of universal human dignity. You can only excuse and understand the Confederate soldier's defense of savagery as a product of his own peculiar political and cultural context.
Last week, Southern politicians were discarding the fraudulent pretenses of neo-Confederacy, and American businesses, such as Amazon, were tacitly or explicitly refuting them. Whether they are bowing to a new moral consciousness brought on by the slaughter in Charleston or to the political realities of the nation's changing demographics is ultimately not important. It's the seismic shift in our political and cultural context that matters.
Racism isn't dead. Its roots stretch too deeply into American history and life to be so easily eradicated. (And if history is any guide, a backlash to this week's actions is already brewing.) But racism is in the process of losing a prominent purchase on American life. That's big.
Frank Wilkinson writes about politics and domestic policy for Bloomberg View.