Confederate Courage

The twisted hope that motivated Dylann Roof's murderous rampage in South Carolina last month was to launch a race war. Instead, the immediate outcome has been a national debate about the Confederate battle flag that flew for a half-century over South Carolina's State House, and which continues to adorn ornamental license plates, coffee mugs, and T- shirts.

Critics of the flag contend that it's a hateful symbol of slavery and racism. Defenders counter that the flag commemorates the courage of Confederate heroes who fought and often died to protect the "southern way of life."

Most of the flag's champions agree, at least publicly, that American slavery was an abysmal sin. That's why they're eager to disassociate the Stars and Bars from the antebellum South's "peculiar institution" by insisting that the Civil War was fought over states' rights, not slavery. But even a cursory reading of the Confederate Constitution or Alexander Stephen's notorious "Cornerstone Speech" pretty clearly shows that in the southern mind, the two were virtually inseparable.

One thing is indisputable: To take up arms for the South in 1861 was ipso facto to defend a heritage economically and culturally founded on the sin of slavery, a transgression whose evil effects are felt to this very day.

This raises a moral question that hasn't been asked in the back-and-forth flag debate: Is courage compatible with championing an immoral cause? Can Confederate soldiers who fought to perpetuate the sin of slavery be said to have acted courageously, as flag defenders insist?

If courage is primarily a psychological willingness to face danger, I suppose Confederate soldiers can be said to have displayed it. But the problem with this value-neutral way of thinking about courage is that it forces us to say that anyone risking life and limb for an obviously wicked cause acts courageously in pursuit of evil ends. This, at the very least, is counter-intuitive. Think, for example, of Nazi Einsatzgruppen murderers, ISIS thugs, or drug lords.

Opposed to this value-free understanding of courage, Christianity and the best of the western philosophical tradition understand courage to be a virtue, one of those character traits that, when cultivated, make us morally good persons. Genuine courage, precisely because it's a virtue, can never be a means to a wicked end, nor can people fighting for a wicked end legitimately be called courageous.

If we agree that treating dark-skinned persons as subhuman chattel is evil -- and, again, defenders of the Stars and Bars don't publicly dispute this -- it follows that fighting to maintain racism and slavery is morally flawed. Confederate soldiers may have believed they were honorable men courageously defending their slaveholding heritage, and their flag-waving descendants may think the same thing. But courage in the pursuit of evil is a contradiction. Virtue no more mixes with wickedness than water does with oil.

Defenses of the Confederate flag based on the assertion that it's a symbol of valiant courage are therefore misguided, tantamount to claiming that the flag of apartheid South Africa, retired in 1994, symbolized the nobility and valor of Boer settlers.

Remember the trouble pundit Bill Maher got himself into when, shortly after 9/11, he declared that the hijackers of the four planes displayed courage in their willingness to throw away their own lives? The public outrage that followed his remark attested to the fact that most of us intuitively recognize a crucial difference between the virtue of courage in defense of a just cause and the sin of fanatical fearlessness in defense of an evil one.

Don't misunderstand me. I'm definitely not insinuating that the typical Confederate soldier was wicked through and through. There's clearly a moral difference between a Johnny Reb and a Nazi or a terrorist. But I do wish to maintain that defending the public display of the Stars and Bars on the grounds that it's a benign tribute to the courage of Confederate soldiers is a perilous misunderstanding of what courage actually is, not to mention a whitewashing of the sin of slavery.

We speak of people displaying "Dutch courage" when drunkenness encourages them to take foolhardy risks. Dutch courage, in other words, is an unworthy mimicry of the genuine article. So is "Confederate courage," the false belief that the virtue of courage can serve evil. Such a distortion deserves to be mothballed along with its symbol, the Confederate flag.