The flag that offends 100 million Americans

We’ve had this discussion before. Over recent years, state and local governments have gradually recognized that flying the Confederate battle flag is offensive and inappropriate. For example, Florida took down that flag in 2001, and even South Carolina took a partial step, removing it from the top of the state capitol building.

Idealog_(3).jpgBut because of the horrific massacre at the Emanuel AME Church, perpetrated by a Confederate flag-waving racist, the issue is back—as well it should be.

Even Mitt Romney has now joined the debate, tweeting “Take down the #ConfederateFlag at the SC Capitol. To many, it is a symbol of racial hatred. Remove it now to honor #CharlestonVictims.”

The issue is simple, really. Symbols can express political values. The Statue of Liberty stands for freedom and a welcome to immigrants. A balance scale stands for equal justice under law. An olive branch symbolizes peace. What political values do the Confederate flag communicate to Americans?

A recent poll asked, “Do you see the Confederate flag more as a symbol of Southern pride or more as a symbol of racism?” Thirty-one percent said that flag is a symbol of racism. That represents about 100 million Americans who see the confederate flag as racist.

But, some might argue, more Americans (41 percent) answered the question with “Southern pride.” Shouldn’t we believe that flag’s supporters when they claim an innocent explanation? No. Those who display the Confederate flag are not stupid and neither are we. They know perfectly well that millions of people abhor that flag; they are displaying it, quite intentionally, to provoke.

After all, that was its purpose. The Confederate battle flag was hardly ever displayed from the end of the Civil War until the beginning of the civil rights movement in the 1940s and 50s. Segregationists and the Klu Klux Klan resurrected that flag—as historians tell us

as part of a massive resistance campaign against the civil rights movement. It wouldn’t exist in our national popular culture without this moment, when African Americans fought for their equality, and the battle flag was recovered and redeployed as a symbol of opposition to it. What was once a very blatant, full-throated defense of white supremacy has now become this gesture to heritage and history that is presented as though it has nothing to do with the civil rights movement. But it has everything to do with the civil rights movement.

There’s another poll by the Pew Research Center just a few years ago. They asked people, what is your “reaction when you see the Confederate flag displayed—positive, negative or neither?” Only nine percent of Americans answered “positive.” Thirty percent (almost identical to those who say the flag is “racist”) answered “negative,” and the rest said neither or don’t know. So very few feel positive toward display of that flag. Let me suggest the likelihood that means people are fully aware that the flag doesn’t symbolize Southern pride; people are smart enough to know that explanation is a fig leaf to cover up something ugly.

Ironically, it was just a couple of weeks ago when the state of Texas won a case in the Supreme Court by being on the right side of this issue. In Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc., Texas sought to keep the Confederate battle flag off of specialty license plates.

The state’s agency for specialty license plates explained why it rejected the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ proposed design:

[B]ecause public comments have shown that many members of the general public find the design offensive, and because such comments are reasonable. The Board finds that a significant portion of the public associate the confederate flag with organizations advocating expressions of hate directed toward people or groups that is demeaning to those people or groups.

If the state of Texas understands this, why doesn’t the state of South Carolina? And if the Charleston mass murderer understands that the Confederate flag represents his racist cause, why doesn’t everyone? Finally, if you sincerely believed that the flag symbolizes Southern pride but understood (as Texas does) that it is highly offensive to millions of your fellow citizens, wouldn’t you find some alternative way to communicate that pride?

It’s not something I say too often, but—Mitt Romney is right.


School evaluation that’s data driven—over a cliff

Last week, a very distinguished panel convened by the National Research Council published an Evaluation of the Public Schools of the District of Columbia. The report is 341 pages long and cost millions of dollars to produce. What’s most impressive about this Evaluation is how very far removed from reality it is.

The experts who contributed to the analysis relied principally on data sets that covered the city’s DC-CAS standardized tests, the NAEP nationwide standardized tests, and the local teacher evaluation model called IMPACT. They also considered other data such as graduation rates, attendance, dismissal, and teacher retention. The third of three major recommendations from this Evaluation cannot be denied: the school system needs to address the so-called “achievement gap,” which—as noted elsewhere—has been greatly exacerbated since “school reform” came to the District in 2007.

What are recommendations one and two? The first is to create “a comprehensive data warehouse.” The second is to pay for ongoing independent evaluation of this data. Really.

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Neo-Cons are wrong about “freedom” and “security”

Some war hawks have defended the invasion and occupation of Iraq as a necessity of national “security” while others promoted the war as a defense of “freedom.” Poppycock, in both cases.

“Values” have real meanings, and when our ideological opponents misuse powerful language, we have to call them on it or lose the debate. (Sadly, since 9/11, we have usually lost this particular debate.)

First, the Iraq war had nothing to do with American “freedom.” Our freedoms as citizens of the United States—to say what we want, practice our religion of choice, associate with anyone, enjoy privacy and due process rights, and have access to protections if accused of a crime—were never jeopardized by Saddam Hussein or al-Qaeda.

Sure, the freedoms of individual Iraqis were affected by the war, not necessarily in a positive way. But, as we know perfectly well, the proponents of the war did not care a whit about the rights of Iraqis. The invasion had nothing to do with “freedom” and when we let neo-cons misuse the word that way, we hand them a powerful weapon and walk away.

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Three reasons why voters are ignorant of policy facts

No doubt you have heard that the Governor of Texas has promised to monitor a U.S. military training exercise called “Jade Helm 15” because Tea Party websites have whipped millions of Americans into a state of hysteria.

“Jade Helm military exercise is not martial law” reads the headline of a newspaper Fact Check column.

“John McCain calls Jade Helm 15 hysteria ‘bizarre,’” says another headline, this one in the Dallas Morning News.

According to a nationwide Rasmussen poll, 45 percent of American voters “are concerned that the government will use U.S. military training operations to impose greater control over some states,” with 19 percent "very concerned." Apparently, among Tea Party voters, 82 percent are "concerned that the federal government has greater control in mind.”

What in the world is going on?

Nothing unusual. We all know that average Americans are tremendously uninformed about a wide variety of issues, from Obamacare “death panels” to supposedly widespread “voter fraud.” Most Americans think crime is going up, immigrants are overrunning the country, and the U.S. spends huge sums on foreign aid.

There are three reasons why Americans are often painfully ignorant.


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The Right Wing Isn’t Crazy, It’s Strategic

So far this year…

  • The Oklahoma House passed legislation to eliminate AP American History classes from public schools because, right-wingers said, the course is too negative about America.
  • The Tennessee House voted to designate the Holy Bible as “the official state book,” ignoring an Attorney General’s opinion that it would be patently unconstitutional.
  • Both Arkansas and Arizona enacted laws requiring doctors to tell patients they could potentially reverse the effects of a medication abortion, an assertion without scientific merit.
  • The Mississippi House approved a bill to exempt the drivers of large church buses from the requirement of possessing a bus driver’s license—nicknamed the “Jesus Take the Wheel Act.”

With bills like these, it’s easy to dismiss the right wing as just plain crazy. Remember the trans-vaginal ultrasound legislation? Know about the Texas bill to allow the open carrying of handguns, even in Houston and Dallas? For that matter, what about the new Kansas law that bars people from using TANF funds to get a tattoo, go to a swimming pool, or take a cruise? A cruise, really? I grew up on what was then just called “welfare” so trust me when I say the monthly support is barely enough money for basic necessities, let alone a cruise.

So, yes, it can seem crazy. But it’s not. It’s strategic.


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A Golden Opportunity to Strengthen the “Progressive” Brand

“Progressive” is our nation’s most popular political term, but at the same time, most Americans don’t really know what it means. If we play our cards right, the Democratic presidential primary season can help us define our ideology. This is an exercise in branding.

While we wish that voters considered their electoral choices with a spirit of idealism and a dedication to the common good, that’s not a realistic expectation. Partisan politics requires some elements of marketing. We need swing voters to have a positive general impression about progressives because they will never really understand the details behind progressive policy.

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The Indiana law promoting discrimination is a new low

Last week, Indiana enacted into law SB 101, the so-called “Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” Apparently, proponents were surprised at the nationwide outcry against the law and they adopted a defensive crouch. 

"There has been a lot of misunderstanding about this bill,” the Governor asserts. “This bill is not about discrimination, and if I thought it legalized discrimination in any way I would’ve vetoed it.”

But of course it’s about discrimination! That’s the point of the law. It invites individuals and corporations to violate state and local laws, regulations and rules and claim, as a legal defense in court, that they were following their own religious principles.

On its face, the Indiana law doesn’t mention sexuality. But the measure is aimed at the LGBT community and not others because the state can’t override federal law that protects against discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. While other states are filling the gap between federal and state law, passing LGBT Fairness Acts to prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression, Indiana is going in the opposite direction.

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Promote “fair markets,” not “free markets”

Last week’s column bemoaned the fact that average Americans believe unquestioningly in “free markets,” even though there are no such things. Indeed, every market relies on a dense web of laws and regulations. Subsidies, loopholes, grants, contracts, trade policy, labor law and inconsistent enforcement all warp markets. To say the words “free markets” is to perpetuate a dangerous right-wing myth.

So promote “fair markets,” not free markets. Can this expression help persuade voters? Yes it can. For example, voters already prefer “fair trade” to “free trade.”

More important, every time we say free markets we hurt the progressive cause. Persuadable voters keep two somewhat-contradictory economic concepts in their minds. The words free markets evoke the conservative belief that governments should stay out of the economic sphere and let markets work things out. The phrase fair markets, in contrast, reminds voters of their firm belief that our economic system is rigged to favor the rich and powerful, and that governments should do something about it. We must reinforce the progressive concept, not conservative one.

Beyond pure messaging, “fair markets” should mean something substantive. It should reflect a philosophy. Progressives need to promote worldviews, not just words.

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There's no such thing as "free" markets

Last week, when the Federal Communications Commission voted for net neutrality and changed the way the Internet is policed, conservatives fell back on their favorite myth. The right wing media raged that it’s “a blow to the free market system.…

But there’s no such thing as “free” markets.

Somehow this neoclassical, theoretical concept plays a central role in contemporary politics. When we progressives try to explain our economic policies, we face the fundamental challenge that typical American voters believe in “free” markets. And why shouldn’t they? They hear no real arguments to the contrary.

But the truth is, the free market is a fairy tale, a fraud, a rhetorical device. American markets are not, and never were, free of government influence. Just open up the business page of any major newspaper and see for yourself. One company seeks a government subsidy. Another is forced to disclose finances by the SEC. The Fed changes the prime rate, affecting everyone’s ability to borrow. The Administration proposes a treaty that would reward some industries over others. The government is always involved, always biasing market results, always nudging and twisting and bumping around the supposedly invisible hand.

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The Right Wing Surge in the States

In state legislatures, 2015 is the right wing’s best chance to enact their most extreme legislation. The right now controls more state legislatures than at any time since the 1920s.

This opportunity is fleeting. Because of increased voter turnout in presidential years, Democrats will probably erase at least some of the Republican state legislative gains next year. In addition, GOP political leaders will want to paste a more moderate face on their party's brand in 2016. So this is their year, they think.

The right has made clear that its partisans have three overarching state legislative priorities, in this order: (1) weaken labor unions, (2) suppress voting by progressive-leaning citizens, and (3) satisfy their religious extremists.

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