Last night, CNN host Don Lemon succeeded in doing what he sets out to do every night, garnering attention for the news network that vastly overpays him to pose the question, “But what if this indefensible position isn’t wrong—or at least isn’t as wrong as you think?” He held up a Confederate flag, and then a placard with the word “NIGGER” on it, and posed a question: “Does this offend you?”
Lots and lots of people took to Twitter to yell or laugh at Lemon, and that probably made him and his employers happy on some level; this is, after all, his schtick. Every time a white person commits an atrocity upon a black person or black people in a chain of events compelling enough to garner national attention, Lemon is there, emerging to ask a series of explosive, facile questions that don’t matter.
Whatever. As we’ve chronicled before in this very space, this dude is, explicitly, a joke with little ability outside of his superhuman inability to muster shame. And maybe more to the point, the segment that followed that suspect opening wasn’t even that bad. The “NIGGER” placard could probably be best interpreted as a bit of standard and even well-meant throat-clearing deployed in service of making an actual point, in this case that South Carolina governor Nikki Haley coming forward to say, “It’s time to move the flag from the Capitol grounds,” represented an opportunity to talk about what that flag really means, rhetorically.
That flag is, of course, the Confederate battle flag, the flag of slavery and treason. South Carolina is hardly unique in flying it above government property—Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, Florida, Arkansas, and Tennessee all have state flags inspired by the Confederate South—but this particular flag has been called into question since last Wednesday night, when a white supremacist named Dylann Roof walked into Charleston, S.C.’s all-black Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, sat through and participated in about an hour of Bible study, shot nine black people to death, and then left.
After each mass shooting like this one, many of us try to make some sense not just of what happened, but why it happened, if only to imagine the unimaginable. We didn’t have to do that this time. That’s because Roof spared one churchgoer’s life specifically so that she could tell everyone what happened. That’s how he was quoted as saying, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”
No one has to wonder why it happened because Roof’s roommate came forward after the massacre, saying that Roof was a white supremacist who’d been planning a massacre for months, hoping to start a race war. No one has to wonder why it happened because Roof’s cousin told reporters, “he kind of went over the edge when a girl he liked starting dating a black guy two years back,” drawing a logical line between Roof and the American tradition of denying white women agency to justify segregation and the public execution of black men. No one has to wonder why it happened because Roof himself told us in a 2,000-word manifesto.
The manifesto was batshit, yes, and poorly-written, but it was also the product of research. Roof examined the history of the state of South Carolina and the history of slavery in this country. He read about and visited places around South Carolina, many of them historic landmarks of slavery and violence against blacks. This is how he settled on Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church for his massacre. It wasn’t happenstance; it was a message.
Roof knows what the flag is. He rightly recognizes it as symbol of slavery and white supremacy, of whites convincing themselves that blacks were beasts by executing horrors upon blacks they would only enact upon beasts, and others they would not. The Confederate flag that right now flies above his home state’s seat of government is a battle flag, meant to instill heart in white Southerners and terror in black ones.
Many people who support this flag claim it represents Southern heritage, not hate, but as The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates chronicled so comprehensively yesterday, the sort of Southern heritage under discussion here and pure blood-based hatred are inextricable. This flag hasn’t been handed down through the generations simply as a way of honoring the morally neutral war dead. It was flown over armies massed in service of slavery; retired; and resurrected nearly a century later specifically as a way of asserting support for white supremacy.
As required by law, almost all of us have attended school, and so almost all of us have attended some number of basic American history classes and/or can read, and so almost all of us have learned and know this. Some of us didn’t learn this, or learned it and forgot, or whatever; that’s fine, but doesn’t mean there is a debate to be had. The message of the flag is clear, and therefore, it shouldn’t fly on public lands, over government buildings.
Just yesterday, Walmart announced it would be removing all Confederate flag merchandise from its stores—an example, really, of the market in action. This brings us back to Don Lemon, a clown every bit as babyfaced as he is soulless. Some minutes after he was wrongishly derided for how he opened the show, Lemon hosted a panel to discuss Walmart’s announcement that they would be deferring to capitalistic imperatives. As usual with these types of panels, Lemon had two black people—South Carolina state senator Marlon Kimpson and CNN pundit Sunny Hostin—and a loud white man named Pat Hines who serves as chairman of the South Carolina League of the South. They were there to debate the meaning of the pro-slavery flag, and more broadly, the fallout of a white man killing nine blacks in the name of white supremacy. After Kimpson explained why he supports removing the flag from the capitol, Lemon asked Hines whether Walmart should stop selling Confederate flag merchandise. Lo, hijinks:
“What I don’t understand,” asked Hines, “is why this state senator is moving to do cultural genocide on the Southern men and women. I don’t get that. Maybe he’s not from the South. I don’t really know him.”
Look at that quote! Hines tried to continue after throwing out the word “genocide” to protest removing a flag stitched and carried by men who fought for cultural and actual genocide, but of course, he was drowned out with consecutive burns from Hostin and Kimpson. As Hines showed, whether or not you personally support the waving of the Confederate flag is between you and your god, should you have one. But why the fuck was Hines even on TV? Where the fuck did homie even come from?
As this site has pointed out before, Don Lemon has more in common with Ricki Lake than any actual journalist. He is, nonetheless, and against everyone’s better judgment, presented as a legitimate reporter. CNN allowed him to cover the fallout of sensational white violence on black people in Ferguson, and Baltimore, and now Charleston, all in the role of an honest-to-god reporter. In this role, his job is, in theory, to illuminate, to educate his viewers on what’s going on. Instead, he’s hauling out random people no one has ever heard of, positioning them as the equals of elected representatives, and urging the public to listen as they explain that not flying a slaver’s flag over a state capitol is on par with the deliberate, systematic eradication of a people and a culture.
This is a feature of Lemon’s presentations. His goal is to spur debate at all costs, even or especially when there is no debate to be had. It’s a hallmark of cable news, but Lemon sucks the most. Instead of providing news or credible opinion, Lemon is more concerned with creating a game show, or at least a fight. It’s the Skip Bayless model of broadcast television, applied to the question of whether we do or don’t think that people of African descent should be (or at least deserve to be) property.
This matters because there is a real debate to be had as we move forward and become further removed from what happened last week. Following Walmart’s decision yesterday, Sears and, shockingly, eBay announced today that they, too will stop selling Confederate flag merchandise. These companies’ decisions are borne of capitalism. They’re pragmatic plays for more longterm profit, but they’re something else, too. It’s one thing for a state government not to fly the slaver’s flag on public property; another thing for a near-monolithic online concern to tell your friend’s harmless bigot uncle that he can’t buy or sell a souvenir because it expresses a horrible set of ideas that happens to be particularly unacceptable at the moment.
This latter is a debate that requires nuance and care, one in which no one’s especially right or wrong. It’s not about what state governments do; it’s about what we, as private citizens do, and, more important, what we’re allowed to do. It’s a debate in which Don Lemon has no place and about which we can safely presume he has nothing to say, and yet he’ll remain involved, giving a national audience to views that have nothing to do with the serious questions at hand. And it almost might make you wonder: With just so much to talk about, how is it that so many of us are talking about a man who, by design, has nothing to say to any of it at all?