|Man Without Qualities|
Thursday, November 13, 2003
I like much of Shelby Steele's writing, but I don't agree with his argument that Howard Dean's statement that Democrats must seek to represent "guys with Confederate flags in their pick-up trucks," was Dr. Dean playing identity politics, the new "progressive" and "inclusive" politics of our age.
I do think that Dr. Dean's foray was doomed from the start by the Democratic posturing over the Confederate flag issue.
It is not hard for an open minded person to ascertain that many Southerners favor personal or official use of the Confederate flag who do not subjectively view that flag as a racist symbol. The strongest argument against official use, in my view, is that - notwithstanding the way that flag may be viewed subjectively by many, even a majority, of people - there are enough people who do view the Confederate flag as a racist symbol that it should not be used to represent a state or locality. In that limited sense, the fights over that flag are battles of subjective versus objective meaning. As a matter of policy, one can accept or reject the argument. But on the question of personal use of the flag (as on a pick-up truck) - as distinguished from official use of the flag (as on a state flag) - the objective policy argument against using the flag is much weaker.
But Democratic posturing has gone much further. It has not been enough for many Democrats to argue that everyone should see what these Democrats see as the racist content of the flag - these Democrats instead argue that everyone does see that content. Worse, such Democrats have made the argument that the Confederate flag vibrates with so much racist resonance that anyone who uses it personally - or favors using it officially - must be and actually is subjectively intending to make a racist statement. In my opinion, that argument is clearly false - judging by my experience with Southerners who use it personally (on their pick-up trucks or otherwise) or favor using it officially. The imputation by Democrats of subjective racist intent to those advocating any use of the Confederate flag has been an important device for them in impugning the political credentials of such advocates.
That's all come back to haunt Dr. Dean. Dr. Dean should be able to argue that he wants to represent the "guys with Confederate flags in their pick-up trucks" who do not view that flag as a racist symbol.
But Democratic posturing in the flag battles means that few Democrats can admit that such people exist.
UPDATE: Paul Krugman's strained effort to recast Dr. Dean's comment is absurd. It is not correct that What [Dean] meant by his flag remark was that Democrats must make the case to working Americans of all colors that the right's elitist agenda isn't in their interest.
Whatever else he may have meant, Dr. Dean meant to convey something about the Democrat's need to appeal to the interests of "guys with Confederate flags in their pick-up trucks" specifically - that is, interests in some way distinct from the interests of working Americans of all colors generally. The problem is, recent Democratic posturing makes it all but impossible for Democrats to acknowledge that "guys with Confederate flags in their pick-up trucks" can have good-faith, non-racists interests and beliefs that merit representation. Appealing to such interests is no more engaging in "identity politics" than appealing to the interests of, say, homeowners, is "identity politics." It's just "politics." But Herr Doktorprofessor's attempt to dissolve the interests of "guys with Confederate flags in their pick-up trucks" in some general "working Americans" soup is just dishonest.
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