The choice of political symbols matters. The Cato Institute, a public policy research center (or “think tank”) in Washington D.C. “dedicated to the principles of individual liberty, limited government, free markets and peace,” has produced an excellent little video (below) which accomplishes several useful things:
1. It counters the historical revisionist tendencies popular among some conservatives and libertarian-oriented thinkers about the causes of the American Civil War. Specifically, it cites the reasons given among southern secessionists themselves for secession. In essence, it ain’t about freedom or states’ rights in any meaningful sense–it is about white supremacy and the preservation of one very peculiar institution.
2. This does not mean that the hero worship enjoyed by the northern cause and Lincoln in particular is exactly warranted either. Genuine atrocities were committed by the northern states in the war effort, and Lincoln, a man of his era and subject to much of the same moral blindness as many of his contemporaries, was ambivalent about emancipation while adamant about preserving the political union of the states.
3. Finally, Jason Kuznicki aptly compares the use of the Confederate Flag as a political symbol to the equally naive tendency to brandish the image of Che Guevara by some folks on the left of the American political spectrum. Both symbols are liabilities. If one believes strongly that smaller, more local governments enjoy greater democratic legitimacy because of their proximity to the people they govern, surely there are better symbols available than a Confederate flag which at least equally implicates the freedom to subjugate a large portion of one’s population because of the erroneous (and self-serving) belief in the natural inferiority of the subjugated group. In like manner, if one believes in the rights of national groups to determine their own national destiny absent interference from or exploitation by foreign countries, corporations, or the puppet regimes to which such foreign entities might lend support, surely there are better symbols than Che Guevara whose untutored zeal was equally matched by his capacity for brutality against non-sympathizers.
“If you don’t look into the implications of your political symbols, someone else will and you probably won’t like the results.”
In other words, history does not readily lend itself to idealized notions of good guys and bad guys. We do damage to the historical record when we seek to use it as a tool or a weapon in ideological conflict. Worst of all, we deprive ourselves of the helpful insights we can glean from history when we cannot deal with the nuance associated with it. Life is complicated, and thus, so is history. A simplistic understanding and invocation of history cannot help us make sense of the complexities of our contemporary lives together. Thinking people must do better.