The New Republic‘s Ryan Lizza cannot get Sen. George Allen or the Confederate battle flag off his mind. Apparently defensive after his work was called into question, Lizza fired back yesterday (under the headline “Are, Too: George Allen’s Flag Fetish”), hoping that another pile of evidence will accomplish what the first could not. Like last week’s effort, it still smacks of a smear, lacking any understanding about the flag as a historical and cultural symbol.
Take two consists of more scraps found in George Allen’s photographic waste bin: flags, flags, and more flags. We knew this — that George Allen appreciated the Confederate battle flag as a young man, and into his political career. Now we know it adorned his truck and room at the University of Virginia, and even his bookcase while he ran for governor in 1993, as shown in a campaign advertisement at the time. The man who made the ad colorfully denies that the flag’s placement was deliberate. To cap off his clumsy implication that Allen is racist, Lizza cites his “Confederate History and Heritage Month” proclamations, belief that West Virginia’s secession from Virginia was unconstitutional, and affirmation in 2000 of a man crying out, “Long live the Confederate flag!”
So what? Neither article contains an explanation for why affection for the Confederate flag is a scandal. Lizza, and presumably his editors at TNR, assume that their readers understand what Lizza won’t stand up and say: those fond of the Confederacy or the Confederate battle flag are racists. Black and white. Case closed. No nuance. No historical context. None of the cultural understanding on which liberals usually insist.
As I wrote last week, the flag has historically meant different things to different people. Many display it as a symbol for racism. Others have not. But to liberals, it’s an automatic stain, which needs no explanation or justification. So automatic that in a subscription solicitation email yesterday, TNR editor Franklin Foer called Lizza’s first piece “a very damning expose.” It is apparently so damning that when I argued that it was biased, sloppy, and unfair, Lizza wrote me, “You seem like a smart guy. I’m surprised you would write something so embarrassing.”
THAT TNR CONTINUES DOWN this road of obscure flag photos demonstrates a cultural gulf between that publication and the South. The photo accompanying the latest article indicates this misunderstanding: it isn’t a shot of Allen next to the flag in the ’93 ad, which might have made for a powerful image, but a young Allen in mid-tobacco spit some 30 years ago. Memo to TNR: yes, it’s gross, but millions of Americans chew tobacco, without fear of moral outrage from the intelligentsia.
Of course, these deficiencies and assumptions have already been pointed out to Lizza and TNR. In writing of Allen, “Whuppin’ his siblings might have been a natural prelude to Confederate sympathies and noose-collecting if Allen had grown up in, say, a shack in Alabama,” Lizza and TNR have smeared an entire state. As Quin Hillyer wrote on our blog Monday, it is difficult to recall such cultural condescension since Michael Weisskopf wrote in the Washington Post that those in the Christian right are “largely poor, uneducated and easy to command.” The Post apologized. TNR has not.
The irony is that TNR continues to pursue Allen even after he has apparently come around to their thinking on the flag. On a “civil rights pilgrimage” in southern Virginia with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) last weekend, Allen was asked about Lizza’s article and the flag. He said, “I have learned over time what that flag means…. To me, it didn’t mean what it means to some people…. I looked at it more as anti-establishment, renegade, rebelliousness. But I have learned… when you look at how that flag has been appropriated by hate groups. I don’t ever want to hurt people or in any way make them feel bad about one thing or another.” Allen has recanted. That is insufficient for TNR.
AT THE END OF YESTERDAY’S article, Lizza ends with the producer of the 1993 ad arguing that the TNR articles will only generate votes for Allen. “‘Well, you also realize you’re getting him votes for the primary, right?’ [Greg] Stevens says, alluding to key states in the South. He raises his voice to a shout: ‘You’re getting him votes! Big time!'” That quote concludes the article on an eerie note, so as to suggest that not only is Allen a racist, but the South is chock full of racists who will support Allen. Frightening indeed.
He is right in one respect. Lizza’s articles, and other “drive-by” attacks of their kind, probably are earning Allen support. Before these attacks, George Allen was just another conservative candidate, who would rise or fall on his own merit. Now that he is unfairly under attack, many conservatives will suppose his presidential hopes have the left rattled. And they will rally to his candidacy.