The Horror of Emptiness

July 05, 2015

As the New York Times gleefully reports, in the wake of the Charleston shooting, “Within five days, decades of resistance in South Carolina, a state that had held fiercely to its Confederate identity, fell away.” The unchangeably “racist symbol” of the Confederate flag will be removed from the capitol grounds, from Nascar races, and from Bubba Watson’s car. The truly surprising thing is quickly and unanimously these “decades of resistance” have disappeared. Suddenly and completely, a symbol that was recognized throughout the South as a relatively innocent symbol of Southern heritage and pride, was, within five days of a shooting, acknowledged as irretrievably racist. This is not the first shooting to have occurred in the South. This is not the first racially motivated attack on black people to have been committed in the South. Yet now, for the first time, the Confederate flag gets the blame. What changed? A shooting did not show up the flag as what it really was. By definition, nothing can “show up” a symbol for “what is really is.” The word “gay” does not refer to homosexuality today because in the last few decades we all suddenly came to the collective realization that in its essence it isn’t a synonym for “happy”, and that we’ve all been using it wrongly for about a thousand years. A word, like a flag, is a symbol, and it’s meaning is entirely dependent on the meaning invested in it by the people who use it. Society started using “gay” to mean “homosexual”, and behold, the meaning of “gay” was changed. The meaning of the Confederate flag is dictated by the behavior of those who use it. In the 1860’s, the flag was a symbol of a slave-owning people. Whether or not that ownership of slaves was racist is beside the point, but it does establish that the only period in history at which that flag could justifiably have been considered racist is over and past. Since almost no one who uses the flag today owns slaves, supports the reinstitution of slavery, or in any way oppresses black people, declaring the flag to be a “racist” symbol is almost laughable. A symbol has to stand for something. Would the slave-owning, confederate flag waving section of America please stand up? Nevertheless, it is obvious that in the last two weeks the meaning of the flag has changed, and yet the behavior of the Americans who use the flag has not. It could be objected that the Charleston shooter used the flag, but thousands of atrocities have been committed under and in the name of the American flag, not least of which the War Between the States itself, and nobody has yet suggested tearing down that. If no one’s behavior has changed, how has the meaning of the flag changed? We live in a peculiar society where “meaning” is denied to exist in any ultimate sense, but is merely assigned to things by the village star chamber, and the rest of us just follow along because we want to be cool too. This is also, of course, why any kind of objection to the chamber is put down so ruthlessly—the chamber is only cool as long as everybody thinks it is. The members of the chamber are understandably insecure about their identity, since that too it something made up by themselves, and so to question the ideological decisions of the chamber is to question the very being of it. By the star chamber, of course, I refer to all those who find their identity in finding some special status separate from the rest of society: black people who find their identity in being “oppressed by whites”, gay people who find their identity in being “oppressed by straights”, women who find their identity in being “oppressed by the patriarchal system” and so on. Not having a religion, history, or traditional culture to ground themselves in, Americans have to find their identities in one of these special status groups, or at the very least, tag along behind by supporting the groups and cheering them on. But since the groups only exist by virtue of their popularity, they have to lay a no-criticism rule on those from the outside. They are the emperor with no clothes on, surrounded by a crowd of sycophants who find their identity in the fact that they can “see” the clothes. Nobody is allowed to treat the emperor as he really is—a naked fat man marching down the street—because to do that would not just embarrass the emperor, but destroy the identity of all the watching thousands who are proud of “seeing” the clothes. What does this have to do with the Confederate flag? In the last two weeks we have witnessed the naked emperor parading out into the street with a new set of “clothes.” The sycophantic response of our whole society to a few people’s plea that the flag is “racist” is merely the desperate ploy of an entire generation trying to pretend it has not spent its life standing out in the street watching a naked fat man. It is the vain attempt of a culture to conceal the emptiness at its heart, its lack of roots, the fact that it has no real identity. If its own arbitrarily created meanings are destroyed or ignored, there is no meaning left. No purpose, no truth, no hope; only the stark horror of emptiness. It is not racism we fear, but rather the exposure of our souls to the fact that we have no standard or foundation on which to define racism—or if we could define it—on which to condemn it. The “decades of resistance” the New York Times spoke of fell so quickly because it had no meaning, ontological or moral, on which to stand. But this should offer some note of instruction to those of us who are conservatives, who wish to preserve the old customs, the old religion. For it is not the task of preservation which we must set ourselves to, but the task of building. Even those elements in our society which we recognize and approve of are but ghosts of a time already gone, because their foundation was ripped out long ago. For our society to be saved from its sins, it must be saved from itself, and its own self-imposed identities. We must look with pity upon its desperate and laughable ploys to hide itself from the growing realization that there is no purpose, no point, and no meaning. The horror of emptiness is growing clearer by the day, and the madness will not hold out for long. Culture can only be built on a standard, and lives can only be lived with an identity and a purpose. It requires, dare I say, a Savior, before our society can be saved. Crying out that the emperor has no clothes will do nothing to save the crowds. Only a new emperor will do.

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Michael Helvey

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