Precisely when it first occurred to Illinois Senator Carol Moseley-Braun to lay her traps for the United Daughters of the Confederacy and its iniquitous insignia containing the Confederate “Stars and Bars” we are not given to know, but certainly it was well before the senator, invariably described in the press as the “Senate’s first black female member,” splashed into American living rooms with her now-famous tantrum on the Senate floor last summer. As early as April, Mrs. Moseley-Braun, who had arrived in the Senate only a few months before, announced her intention to oppose renewal of the congressionally approved patent for the UDC insignia when the matter came before the Judiciary Committee. This announcement, like most of what issues from Mrs. Moseley-Braun’s lips, generally passed unnoticed, though some Southerners and not a few Northerners who care about their country’s history tried to sound the alarm that mischief was afoot.
By late July, the mischief was up and galloping. Sometime in the spring, the committee yielded to Mrs. Moseley-Braun’s unique blend of threat, whine, and smear and voted overwhelmingly not to renew the patent for the insignia that had received unanimous and noncontroversial assent in every Congress that had considered it since 1898. That would have been the end of the matter, had not Senators Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms contrived in July to offer an amendment to slip the patent through. As in the days of yore, their amendment passed, but then someone alerted the First Black Female Member of the Senate, who perched herself in the path of the legislation and once again began to emit her characteristic noise.
In what the Washington Post the next day described as “a speech bristling with outrage,” Mrs. Moseley-Braun, whose “voice was eloquent and angry,” denounced and insulted the flag, the Confederacy, the UDC, the senators who proposed the amendment, the senators who supported the amendment, the senators who opposed the amendment, and the Senate itself. Finally, after consuming an inordinate amount of time that could have been used for raising taxes, declaring war on harmless countries, or swelling the belly of the state, the Senate, like the committee earlier, yielded to her imprecations and by a vote of 75 to 25 undid what it had just done by defeating the Thurmond-Helms amendment.
Whatever “anger,” “outrage,” or “eloquence” the First Black Female Member of the Senate evinced, it cannot be said that she exhibited much command of elementary logic, nor was the conduct of her senatorial colleagues much better. It was her argument that for the Senate to grant a patent to a seal that contained a depiction of the Confederate flag was to give what she called an “imprimatur” to racism. Since the Confederacy was itself racist, its flag was and is a symbol of racism, and therefore anyone who displays the flag or uses it as a symbol at all is also a racist, as is anyone who votes for a patent for a seal that uses the flag. This line of reasoning set off a predictable chain reaction of senators professing their own abhorrence of racism, the most ridiculous and repellent link in the chain being the ponderous Howell Heflin of Alabama, who waddled forward to bleat about his own Confederate ancestors and how today they would certainly join him in voting against the UDC patent. Not to be outdone. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan managed to remain sober long enough during the debate to lisp that “for the Senate to endorse it [the Confederate flag] is something I do not think we had any idea we were capable of.” That, of course, was a bald-faced lie, since Mr. Moynihan knew very well that the UDC patent comes up for renewal every 14 years and has been unanimously “endorsed” by the Senate, including him, each and every time.
There seems to have been little or no challenge to the premise of Mrs. Moseley-Braun’s argument that the Confederacy was racist. It might have been interesting, did we possess senators capable of debating that or any other postulate, to hear some back-and-forth on this. Not only might it have illuminated our contemporary understanding of what the Civil War means but it might even have yielded some definition of the now-vacuous term “racism.” But, barring that, the senators who voted for the flag amendment might also have explored other aspects of the issue. Mrs. Moseley- Braun herself, for example, represents a state that in 1848 adopted, by a popular vote of two-to-one, an amendment to its constitution to forbid any free blacks from entering its territory, and for all I know today’s Illinois state flag is the same one that graced the Land of Lincoln at that time as well as a decade later, when the state’s foremost political figures sallied up and down its length professing their commitment to white supremacy. It would be of no small interest to know what Mrs. Moseley-Braun has done or plans to do to rid Illinois of its racist heritage and its continuing imprimatur of such explicit symbols of racism as Mr. Lincoln and his cult.
Then there is the small matter of the American flag, which, no less than the Stars and Bars, flapped over a nation that not only tolerated slavery but extended the protection of federal laws to the slave trade and slave owners. Mrs. Moseley- Braun, were she calm enough, might respond that the American flag stood and stands for other things besides the protection of slavery, but so, for that matter, did the Confederate flag, a concept she does not appear to be able to entertain with equanimity. Bv her own logic, she ought to burst into hysterics every time she spies Old Glory waving over the Capitol, and indeed, perhaps she does.
The Senate’s patent for the UDC insignia, however, was never intended to be an endorsement of the Confederacy or even of its flag. It was an endorsement of the UDC. Opponents of the patent pointed out, correctly, that the UDC could protect its insignia by instruments other than the rather unusual means of a congressional resolution. So it can, but the special senatorial “endorsement” of the UDC has historically been intended to express the gratitude of the federal government to a private organization that has donated to the American people untold millions of dollars in Civil War memorials and monuments, land for public parks, scholarships, work in veterans hospitals, and charitable services generally. As some defenders of the UDC and its patent suggest, maybe the Daughters should start asking for their contributions back, or maybe they should stop offering them. There is no reason why they should continue to bear the burden of their charities when all they receive for their labor are insults from the human refuse of the Senate.
Yet despite the ignorance, hypocrisy, ingratitude, mendacity, and cowardice exhibited by most of the senators, and despite the fanaticism and self-obsession revealed by the First Black Female Member of the Senate, Mrs. Moseley-Braun has one point in her favor. Unlike most of her colleagues, she understands the value and meaning of symbolism to the identity of a nation—that is why she chose to make such a fuss about a “mere” symbol in the first place—and it is precisely because she does understand it while many of her colleagues do not that the fuss she made represents something important. What it represents is the first wave of assault on the national identity as most Americans have historically understood it, and unless the kind of attack she mounted is repulsed and the social forces behind it reversed, the Confederate flag will be only the first casualty in the cultural war she and her allies are waging.
One who perceives the real meaning of Mrs. Moseley-Braun’s assault is Jonathan Yardley, book review editor and columnist at the Washington Post, who expatiated on the meaning of it all a few days after the First Black Female Member of the Senate’s outburst. Mr. Yardley is himself a Southerner of the tribe that advances itself by making certain the enemies of the South know he’s on their side. There was a name for this tribe in the days of Reconstruction and even a means of dealing with it properly, but sadly those times are done. Mr. Yardley seized the occasion of the flap over the flag to make sure his bosses at the Post and his readers within the Beltway knew what he thought of the UDC, the flag, and those who came to their defense.
“The day has long since passed,” he wrote, “when the UDC had the power to inject its genteel poison into the communal bloodstream. It now limps toward the end of the millennium a mere shade of its former self, the object of little except ridicule and neglect in all save those outposts of small-town Southern insularity in which it has always found a gentle welcome . . . the UDC is little more than a foolish relic of a past by now so distant as to seem prehistoric.” So visible is Mr. Yardley’s personal resentment at the symbols of the old Southern class system that it’s fairly easy to guess in which corner of the barnyard his own forebears disported themselves. The ladies of the UDC, he sneers, “for far too long have enjoyed the favor of the U.S. government,” and they “must now look for a new image with which to adorn their scented letterheads and lace doilies; in their present mood, a violated maiden recumbent upon a bed of straw, with Atlanta afire in the background, might be appropriate.” Actually, burning cities and raped women would be more appropriate symbols of the present- day United States that Mr. Yardley prefers than they are of the Old South, which, for all its flaws of romanticism, generally understood how to prevent such things.
Mr. Yardley writes about the UDC like a blackballed freshman would write about the fraternities that declined the pleasure of his company. Yet whatever it is in his psyche or personal background that leads him to spit his own poison about a charitable organization that is at worst harmless and at best a generous source of historical, educational, and philanthropic service, Mr. Yardley correctly grasped the historic meaning of the First Black Female Member of the Senate’s onslaught.
“The election of 1992,” he writes, “changed the Senate—and, by extension, American polities—in ways we can only now begin to understand. . . . The old boys’ club is breaking up, not merely the boys’ club of the Senate but the boys’ club of leadership and power. What is most significant about the election of Carol Moseley-Braun, Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Patty Murray and others in the Class of ’92 isn’t that they are politicians of a different stripe but that they are people of a different stripe. They speak for backgrounds and experiences that until now have been quite unknown—and thus unrepresented—in the halls of power; inevitably, this will change the way business is done in those halls.”
Precisely. What we are seeing in the UDC episode is the first evidence at the level of the national government of the demographic changes and their cultural consequences that American society is experiencing and will continue to experience. Those changes, the direct result of a rising nonwhite birth rate reinforced by massive immigration from non-Western societies, will, as Mr, Yardley perceives, “inevitably” change the way business is done in this country, and not just in the Senate. The change is inevitable because it is inconceivable that people who are not, and whose ancestors were not, part of the historic defining core of the American nation will adopt the same norms, values, and beliefs and adhere to and respect the same political and social institutions that that core supported, and neither will they embrace the same symbols.
As the historic nucleus of American civilization finds itself overwhelmed numerically—indeed, well before it is overwhelmed numerically—it will find that it can no longer elect political leadership willing and able to offer the protection and sanctions of the state to the norms and symbols that define its civilization. It will find that new leaders, more representative of the new demographic composition of the nation, will seek to redefine the norms and institutions of American life and that they will not hesitate to use political power to do so, and the only response that the new leadership will offer the older norms and institutions is exactly the one offered by Mrs. Moseley-Braun to the Confederate flag. In short, when the country is composed of Mr. Yardley’s “people of a different stripe,” it will be a country of a different stripe, and the Confederate flag is merely the first symbol of the “racist” and “repressive” old civilization to be struck from the mast.
As the Census Bureau has shown in a recent report, within 60 years the majority of the American population will no longer be white. By that time, the change will certainly have been completed so far as the old American civilization is concerned, but we probably will not have to wait that long to witness it. One reason we won’t is that the revolution will enjoy the active assistance of renegades like Senators Heflin and Moynihan and Mr. Yardley. They will not only welcome the revolution but will eagerly seek to clamber onto its back, and, as Mr. Yardley’s own column about the UDC suggests, they will be among the first to help the enemies of the old civilization round up and hunt down the dwindling number of Americans who defend it.
Of course, they may not succeed in this tactic. If the demise of American civilization through racial and cultural revolution is already apparent on our horizon, in South Africa it has nearly arrived. Last summer, just about the time Mrs. Moseley-Braun was blubbering about the Confederate flag, some 12 white churchgoers in an affluent suburb of Capetown were butchered by a gang of black terrorists. The church was Anglican, which has been one of the most adamant foes of apartheid, and its congregation was racially mixed, a rarity in that country. Not for the first time in history the apostles of progress were among the first of its victims, and the same pattern can be expected to occur in this country as our own apostles of “inevitable” change see their prophecies come to life.
Yet the revolution Mr. Yardley perceives and welcomes is “inevitable” only if its demographic and ideological premises are granted. I happen to subscribe to the quaint belief that it remains possible for Americans who do not welcome the revolution to challenge and reverse those premises. But to do so would require more than congressional resolutions and more than the monuments and memorials the Confederate Daughters so generously bequeath. As to whether the historic core of American civilization understands what would be required and whether it can still muster the strength to undertake it, I make no prediction.