The Left

Everybody's Not Doing It

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There were three successive national flag designs that served as the official national flags of the Confederate States of America (the "Confederate States" or the "Confederacy") during its existence from 1861 to 1865. | Photo: Archives | Confederate Flag, Flag, United States, Stars, Stripes,

Criticizing evil isn't an act of vanity

According to National Review's Rich Lowry, we should stop criticizing the Confederate flag, because deep down we're all Confederate slaveholders.

Or at least we would have been, if we'd been in the South back in the day: "The fact is that if anyone banging on about the Confederacy at the moment on Twitter were born in the 1840s in the South, outside of a few select areas, they, too, would have fought for the Confederacy" (he updated the post to exempt black Southerners).

This is hardly a unique argument. A few years back, David Brooks declared that everyone currently condemning Penn State for its cover-up of a child-abuse scandal was suffering from "vanity" because they arrogantly assumed they wouldn't have helped the cover-up in the same situation The real issue for Brooks wasn't abuse or covering up abuse as much as people who didn't grasp their own immoral, sinful natures.

In short, we should stop criticizing because everybody's doing it. Or would have done it.

It's perfectly true that we are all flawed and none of us is perfect. And it's quite possible that if we'd been raised in the 19th-century South we (like Lowry I'm referring to a specifically white "we") would grow up firmly convinced of the virtues of slavery and the superiority of the white race. Or that if we were in a position where someone very important to our employer were abusing children, we'd shut up rather than rock the boat.

I'd like to think I'd do the right thing, but never having been put to the test, I can't say for sure. But I can say for sure that some of the people "banging on about the Confederacy" would have done the right thing. Wouldn't have fought for the South's right to own slaves. Would have opposed slavery. I can't guess which of us it would be, but I know they exist.

Even in the 1840s they existed. Southerners who opposed slavery. Who put their lives on the line by acting on that belief. They were a minority, but they existed. Presumably that would apply to the critics of the CSA today too: Any of us might be a slavery supporter, but not all of us. So Lowry's reasoning doesn't hold up.

Neither does Brooks' line of thought. Yes, it's true a lot of people turn a blind eye even to the worst behaviors of friends, families, employers, but not everyone. Some people blow the whistle, report the behavior, even at great personal cost.

Beyond that, it doesn't follow that criticizing the CSA, Penn State or anything else evil (and I think both slavery and child abuse fall into that category) is proof of vanity or that people doing so must need (in Lowry's words) "a measure of modesty." Some people, perhaps, are puffed up with moral superiority, but again, not all of them. And even if some critics are deluded about their own virtue, that doesn't invalidate the criticisms.

If we can't criticize slavery or a child-abuse cover-up, what on Earth can we criticize?

The Third Reich? Nope. We might have been collaborators, mightn't we? And we might have collaborated in Stalinist Russia, the killing fields of Cambodia, Guatemala's genocide, Jim Crow lynchings, pogroms against Jews ... so by the Brooks/Lowry reason, all that is off the table.

Somehow I doubt they really think that. I can't imagine Lowry defending Soviet citizens or officials on the "you'd have done it too" grounds, given National Review's long history of anti-communism. And Brooks routinely lectures the poor about morality without feeling he might be a teensy bit vain. "Everybody's doing it" is only an excuse when someone wants it to be.

Which Brooks and Lowry apparently do.

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Updated Aug 12, 2017 12:01 PM EDT | More details

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