July 11, 2015

Flags and Fences

Both the Left and the Right have had their opportunities to jump on their favorite emotional hobby horses these past weeks. With the Charleston massacre by Dylann Roof, himself a racist and a bearer of the Confederate flag (among others), progressives were quick to leap to cries to remove the Confederate flag flying on public ground in South Carolina, for more gun control (and lately, for digging up bodies of Confederate soldiers), etc.

Similarly, conservatives have had the opportunity to re-open debates about illegal immigrants and the de facto open border with Mexico after a Mexican national, who had apparently been deported five times, shot and killed Kathryn Steinle. He had been released in accordance with "sanctuary city" policies, whereby certain cities choose to release illegal immigrants rather than transfer them to federal control when arrested. Conservatives were quick to leap to cries regarding open borders, the tepid White House response to this killing compared with Freddie Gray and Trayvon Martin, and so forth.

What seems to be true in both cases is that the evil choices of a given individual are being used to focus attention on things only loosely related, if at all, to those choices. In the first instance, it may well have been time to move the Confederate flag to a museum (though I have serious doubts about how far that particular idea has now transferred into a hysteria to wipe out all symbolic memory of the Confederacy). However, what seems to be in front of the minds of many is that, somehow, Roof was inspired or motivated by the Confederate flag, rather than the other way around - that is, adoption of a symbol by Roof. There seems to be a certain materialism at work here, a certain claim that, but for the existence of the flag in South Carolina, Roof would not have committed a massacre. Aside from the problem that, even had the flag been removed a generation ago, Roof would still be able to possess one now, it is not what goes into a man which defiles him, but what comes out. That single-minded ideology is at work can hardly be debated - progressive opponents of the flag have been quick to argue that anyone  displaying the flag, honoring the memory of a Confederate soldier, etc., must ipso facto support the slavery and racism characteristic of the South for many years, whatever claims or evidence to the contrary.

Despite more complexity in response, many of the conservative's reaction to the Steinle murder has been to paint illegal immigrants as a whole as more crime-ridden due to the fact of their lawlessness in illegally entering the country. Other conservatives have decried the White House for its tepid response to the crime as compared to slayings of minorities by whites. As to the first, while in that crime, this is true, illegal immigrants are no more likely to commit crimes than other groups, and may, in fact, be less likely to do so. Crimes, such as murder, committed by illegal immigrants, are crimes committed in greater percentages by citizens; they are not made more or less heinous by the immigration status of the perpetrator. While those who are victims or know victims of crimes committed by illegal immigrants have a strong emotional case that "this should not have happened," I am not sure that counterfactual argument is a good way to proceed. While it may be high time to secure our border for any number of reasons, as well as be concerned about assimilation of immigrants and respect for the law, any evil act committed by an illegal immigrant should be treated in and of itself, rather than as a symbol of some greater problem. As for the tepid White House response, I think that should, unfortunately, be expected from a President who makes race relations his hallmark, and seems only truly concerned with using tragedy for his own political ends. I am sympathetic with those who call the White House out for its lack of response.

In either case, an evil occurrence has been overlain and stamped with layers of emotional concern that have been fomenting for years, and the subject of constant debate, and the pro / con sides of each debate are eager to impress any occurrence that bears relation, however tenuous, with great meaning to their side of the debate. However, we would do better, in either case, not to use tenuous connection with occurrence as ammunition for causes, especially for removal of the flag and for painting illegal immigrants as crime-ridden beyond the bare fact of illegal status itself. We should have debates about symbols and their use in society, and debates about the flow of immigrants into our country, but we should not be opportunistic and flatten evil occurrences into tools to forward the debates. We risk over-broad strokes and alienation of potential allies. We would find more allies in debates about the meaning of the Confederate flag if we didn't choose to invest a symbol with unified meaning, and paint all those bearing the symbol, whatever they may say, as invested with the same racism as motivated Dylann Roof. We would do better, in debating about immigration, if we did not argue that immigrants are more likely to commit evil than other members of society. Both are demonstrably not true, and both fail to engage the range of arguments and meanings fairly.

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