Symbols are important, especially visual symbols; I’d be the last person to deny that. However, in the wake of Dylann Roof’s monstrous killing of nine African-American members of the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, SC, one symbol is dominating the discourse more perhaps than it should. There is a robust debate going on currently about the propriety of the Confederate flag, that antiquated, offensive standard of the antebellum south, and whether or not it will be possible to remove it from South Carolina’s State House grounds.
This is not an unworthy discussion—it would be a triumph for basic human decency if we banished the Confederate flag, to be sure—but for me, it’s all a tremendous and even cynical distraction from the real issue, which is guns. The column inches devoted to “the Southern cross” in the days since Dylan Roof’s heinous crime are much more copious than those devoted to the most urgent, most pressing dimension of the whole tragedy: the lack of sane gun control policy in the United States of America.
We may be able to get rid of this flag, but what good will that do us when another deranged shooter claims lives in New England, the Midwest, the Northwest, or anywhere else outside of the South? It would be a wonderful miracle if that somehow never happened again, but is anyone willing to bet that banishing the Confederate flag is really going to do anything to curb this seemingly relentless tide of shootings? It is a noxious and hateful banner, but in contrast, our current gun control policy—and the repeated public tragedies that policy engenders—is pure insanity. This is one instance where the importance of symbols seems highly overrated, and a regrettable diversion from the difficult reckoning that those lost lives really call for.
In the interest of a less morose approach to this argument, let me leave you with this brilliant, fifteen-minute standup routine by comedian Jim Jefferies, who articulates a damning and, thankfully, hilarious case against the American regard for guns. Laugh at it even as you may be crying inside.