Confusing the symbol for the referent

So it appears the dramatic outcome, which we’re all supposed to celebrate, of Dylann Roof’s shooting of nine people in a Charleston church will be the taking down of the Confederate Battle Flag at the South Carolina capitol. Apparently this requires an act of the state legislature, so it might still not happen. But at least for the moment, there’s hope that at least this much may happen.[1]

This because the flag is a symbol of the Confederacy which sought to secede from the Union in order to preserve that ‘peculiar institution’ of slavery.[2] And sure, I’ll agree that as such, it ought to to come down.

But it would, and probably will, be unfathomably reckless to imagine that this actually responds to Roof’s rampage. Roof, it seems,

left a racist manifesto targeting blacks, Jews and Hispanics on his Web site, a white supremacist broadside that also appears to offer a rationale for the shootings. . . . “I have to do it,” the shooter told his victims, according to Sylvia Johnson, cousin of a pastor who died in the attack, who spoke to a survivor. “You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”[3]

As Morris Dees and J. Richard Cohen noted,

When, according to survivors, Mr. Roof told the victims at the prayer meeting that black people were “taking over the country,” he was expressing sentiments that unite white nationalists from the United States and Canada to Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Unlike those of the civil rights era, whose main goal was to maintain Jim Crow in the American South, today’s white supremacists don’t see borders; they see a white tribe under attack by people of color across the globe.[4]

I have been studying conservatism for several years now. In the preliminary work leading to my dissertation (which I hope to finish this year), I developed a taxonomy of conservative tendencies. And Roof is unmistakably a paleoconservative, which is to say, he is a white supremacist. Arguing that publications such as the paleoconservative Alternative Right offer a cathartic and thus violence-averting effect, Colin Liddell put in a caption beneath Roof’s photograph, a photograph that prominently features the Rhodesian and South African flags on his jacket, “This one slipped through our fingers. Sorry, SPLC,” referring to the Southern Poverty Law Center.[5]

So, now, I need you all to think this through for a moment. Imagine that you think 1) that the Confederate Battle Flag is a symbol of white defiance, and 2) that, as paleoconservatives often do, the white race is under attack. Imagine then, how you would expect paleoconservatives—and I don’t mean the relatively less violent Liddell—to react.

The move to take down the Confederate flag will not reassure you that the white race is safe. It will tell you that the attack has reached the highest levels of South Carolina’s state government. And as you look around yourself, you will see, as Ken Thrasher, the lieutenant commander of the South Carolina division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, does, “With the winds that started blowing last week, I figured it would just be a matter of time.”[6]

Thrasher promises that his organization will accept a decision to take down the Confederate flag graciously,[7] but we have already seen that at least some paleoconservatives will not be so gracious about the attack they perceive.

  1. [1]Frances Robles and Richard Pérez-Peña, “Haley of South Carolina Calls for Removal of Confederate Battle Flag,” New York Times, June 22, 2015,
  2. [2]Thom Bassett, “The South, the War and ‘Christian Slavery’,” New York Times, April 27, 2012,; Tony Horwitz, “150 Years of Misunderstanding the Civil War,” Atlantic, June 19, 2013,
  3. [3]Lenny Bernstein, Sari Horwitz, and Peter Holley, “Dylann Roof’s racist manifesto: ‘I have no choice’,” Washington Post, June 20, 2015,
  4. [4]Morris Dees and J. Richard Cohen, “White Supremacists Without Borders,” New York Times, June 22, 2015,
  5. [5]Colin Liddell, “How the Alt-Right Saves Lives,” Alternative Right, June 19, 2015,
  6. [6]Thrasher, quoted in Frances Robles and Richard Pérez-Peña, “Haley of South Carolina Calls for Removal of Confederate Battle Flag,” New York Times, June 22, 2015,
  7. [7]Frances Robles and Richard Pérez-Peña, “Haley of South Carolina Calls for Removal of Confederate Battle Flag,” New York Times, June 22, 2015,

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