The crimes people accuse liberals of often include the following:
- Calling every single thing racist
- Disrespecting the troops
Today, Rick Perlstein pulls off the impressive feat of confirming both of these stereotypes at once, with an article calling the POW-MIA flag racist.
Perlstein does not actually make a case that the flag is racist, despite the headline and introduction. He makes the case that it was used cynically by the Nixon administration in order to drum up support for the Vietnam War and manipulate the emotions of the American public. And he makes that case well. His evidence from history is detailed, showing the way that American-supported South Vietnamese crimes were twisted and portrayed as North Vietnamese crimes.
But Jesus, why frame it that way except to antagonize people? Why compare the POW-MIA flag with the Confederate Flag, when supporting prisoners of war is a good thing and supporting slavery is a bad thing? The fact that the flag had its origins as a propaganda tool does not necessitate angering every single POW family by throwing the word racism around.
This Perlstein story illustrates a couple of tendencies that I detest on the left: the trivialization of racism and the counterproductive framing of issues. I think racism is a serious thing, and I can’t stand to see it treated frivolously. The worst example I saw of this was in Mother Jones magazine, which seriously announced that “dogmatic adherence to mealtimes is racist.” After that, how could you ever take any of their other accusations of racism seriously? Perlstein is certainly right that the Vietnam War was racist, insofar as it was perpetrated with a near-total disregard for the lives of the Vietnamese simply because of their race. And he’s right that the flag helped to support the war. But unlike the Confederate flag, the POW-MIA flag is largely redeemable; after all, there’s nothing insidious about wishing POWs well and hoping the missing are found.
This is also a prime example of unwise framing. If you want people to listen to you, why write it this way unless absolutely necessary? Certainly the headline is controversial and attention-grabbing, and it will earn Perlstein plenty of clicks (I wrote recently about my own similar use of cheap, inflammatory writing to get attention.) But if Perlstein is trying to use racism as a hook to get people to read an interesting historical discussion about Nixon’s Vietnam P.R. strategy, then he’s being dishonest. And if he is in fact trying to convince people the flag is racist, he’s still doing a horrible job, since his piece will persuade nobody who isn’t already inclined to agree to the validity of nearly any accusation of racism. I hate writing that either preaches to the converted or turns off the unconvinced, and Perlstein’s article does both. It embarrasses the left by confirming every conservative belief about what heartless, whiny offense-mongers we are. It is needlessly callous about POWs. And it will excite useless controversy without getting anyone to discuss Vietnam, which was a disgusting atrocity that should haunt every American every day. Perlstein says that the flag is a shroud that “smothers the complexity, the reality, of what really happened in Vietnam.” Ironically, by framing his argument as a case that the “You Are Not Forgotten Flag” is racist, Perlstein himself is the one who manages to smother the history and complexity of Vietnam.
[Update: Rick Perlstein has apparently privately apologized for calling the POW flag racist, saying that instead of using such emotionally-loaded language we should “kill with kindness.” In issuing such an apology, Perlstein has managed to conform to a third embarrassing liberal stereotype: “Liberals are sniveling weenies who never stand their ground.”]