We’ve only just begun . . .
Have you ever wondered what it was like to live through a sweeping cultural revolution? If you lived in France in late 1789, for instance, and you reviewed the events of the previous 12 months, you would have shaken your head in wonderment at all that had happened. Only a year before, could any prophet have seen what was coming, and in just a moment of historical time? With dread or anticipation, you would only dare speculate how much more rapidly change might occur in the five or ten years to come.
As yet, tumbrils are not rolling in the United States, and aristocrats are still firmly attached to their heads. But look back just a year. If anyone had told you back then that, almost overnight, so many of the material symbols of American history would be swept away, that the Confederate story would be stigmatized almost as much as that of the Nazis, the Confederate Battle Flag eliminated, and other symbols and public monuments erased . . . would you have believed it? Only a year ago, most Americans, conservative or liberal, North or South, would have scoffed. That is a struggle for a future generation, they would have said—but not yet. What politicians would dare face the public anger and outrage? Would any government thus provoke the whole white South, not to mention the sentimental pseudo-Southerners who follow NASCAR and listen to country music?
And then came June’s shootings in the AME church in Charleston, and a mighty portion of American history suddenly became too toxic for public display. Americans eradicated those symbols of a suddenly hated past, so that they could devote their attention to events elsewhere in the world—especially to the Middle East, where lunatic extremists were eliminating the material symbols of their own hated past. And who dared draw comparisons between the two movements, or to point to the paradox?
Do not for a moment, though, believe that America’s grand cultural purge was the immediate consequence of a single act of racist mass murder. Such a seemingly overnight transformation of public attitudes could only have occurred if those ideas and opinions had already permeated the mass of ordinary people. And I do stress overnight. At least with the revolution of same-sex marriage, that was in the public eye for some 15 years before achieving victory. But who, in 2014, seriously proposed the removal of those Confederate symbols? Or beyond that, look back just a generation to 1990 and watch Ken Burns’s PBS series on the Civil War. While Burns highlighted the slavery issue, it would be utterly inconceivable now for such a show to present such a broadly favorable and romantic view of Confederate leaders.
Somehow, over the past few years, a profound transformation was going on beneath the surface of public discourse. Not only did liberals increasingly dream that such a purge was possible, but conservatives no longer felt willing to resist change, or to risk the opprobrium. One kick at the door was all that was needed to bring down an already crumbling house. To adapt John Adams’s famous words, this particular cultural revolution was effected well before assassin Dylann Roof pulled his trigger in Charleston. The revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people.
Leave aside for now the issue of the Confederate flag, and all those statues of Jeff Davis and Stonewall Jackson. What’s next? What once-unthinkable ideas have already become so common and so widespread sub rosa that they lack nothing except a single sensational incident or scandal to bring them to public light?
Multiple cultural battlefields emerge, especially in areas of sexuality and sexual identity, but for present purposes, let me focus on the racial themes that follow directly from the anti-Confederate reaction. I think especially of reparations for slavery, an idea that for decades has lurked on the furthest reaches of the radical left. The idea is flawed, not least in identifying possible beneficiaries, the descendants of the slave experience. To take an obvious example, Barack Obama claims not a drop of African-American blood, but self-identifies as black. Would he receive a reparations check for the evils inflicted on his nonexistent slave ancestors? What about families descended from both slaves and slave-owners?
The objections are manifold—but just imagine that a vociferous political movement coalesced around this theme. How many white politicians would dare oppose reparations legislation, and thereby risk ruinous charges of racism and “neo-Confederate” attitudes? As of today, I do not believe that such a movement is anywhere on the political radar as a serious prospect—but a year ago, I thought that Confederate statues were safe for my lifetime.
That’s the thing about living through a revolution. Suddenly, for better or worse, all things are possible.