Jonathan Engel, J.D. is the President of the Secular Humanist Society of New York. Here we talk about Mississippi, the Confederacy, Reconstruction, and more.
*Interview conducted on June 29, 2020.*
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So, this is going to leave New York a bit, not only New York City, but New York State. You had some considerations of confederate representation in a flag and then the representation of religious language or the God concept in association with those. What is going on in the state of Mississippi? Why is this a problem?
Jonathan Engel: The state of Mississippi was the last state in the union to retain a piece of the Confederacy on its state flag. In the early 20th century, people in the South who never got over the Civil War started carrying and showing the confederate battle flag. I am not sure as to why it is that flag as opposed to the Confederacy, but this was a flag brought into battle when confederates fought American troops. It has become a big symbol of oppression for a lot of people and white supremacy for a lot of people. So, it has become really controversial. A few years ago, the state of South Carolina agreed that they would no longer fly the flag in the state capital alongside the American flag. They took it down. It was a big deal. The last state that kept doing this was Mississippi, which had a quarter of its state flag that confederate battle flag. So, every time an African American walks into the Mississippi state legislature. They see the state flag and think, “Great, I am a member of this state. Yet, they are flying a flag in a positive way the enslavement of my ancestors.” Obviously, it is an affront, but, to me, as an American. I regard the Confederacy as a treasonous organization. That tried to destroy the United States. It took up arms against American soldiers.
There has been pressure, a lot of rethinking in this country, regarding the Black Lives Matter movement and in terms of racial equality, etc. So, they had a vote over the weekend in Mississippi. They voted that that would no longer be their flag. That, from now on, that flag would no longer be their flag. They would design anew one. The law that passed was saying the new flag only not contain the confederate flag and somewhere on its design, “In God We Trust.” Now, in God we trust, it became the United States national motto in the 1950s as an anti-communist thing, as opposed to the original motto of the country, which is E Pluribus Unum. It means “Out of many, one.” So, they’ve done that. This is the law. I heard about this. I said, “Is it really progress? A lot of liberals and progressives, I understand why, but I think they’ve forgotten something. They are celebrating, “Oh boy, the state of Mississippi is finally getting with the program by getting rid of the confederate flag.” I go, “But yeah, they’ve gone from disrespecting African Americans to disrespecting freethinkers like me.”
Not everybody trusts in some mythical deity. There are quite a few people in this country who don’t trust in it. Unfortunately, we don’t – as the saying goes – punch our weight. There are a lot of people who are secular nonbelievers in this country, but it is kind of taboo to come out and say it. So, we don’t punch our weight in terms of, for example, the discussion happening now. It is about Joe Biden and who the Vice President will be in the coming election. Some African Americans are saying, “It should be an African American.” He has already promised that it will be a woman. I don’t hear anybody looking to say, “We need to get our base of freethinkers.” Part of this is due to atheists not being too organized. They say organizing atheists is like herding cats. There’s not too much organization, but, still, this bothers me. That my fellow progressives, my fellow liberals, would look at a law like that and say, “Hey, wait a minute, okay, great. You’re getting rid of the battle flag. But why are you disrespecting the fellow freethinkers in this country?”
Jacobsen: If you take an individual who harbours the amount of pride, not in the sense of hubris, but a personal sense of worth in a confederate history for them, they engage in the various re-enactments or the inverse history imaginary re-enactments in which the confederates win. What does this kind of representation in a flag mean to you? Furthermore, if they are religious or have an adherence to some form of God concept, what does that mean to them? In other words, this is taking the other point of view.
Engel: It is very important for people to know and remember that many of the confederate symbolism, which people say is important to them, etc. Those things became popular among the average people in the South long after the Civil War ended. This was post-Reconstruction. When the Civil War first ended, the United States of America put in place a number of reforms in southern states to enforce the rights of black people to vote. Black people were elected to public office. Then a massive backlash took place, the northern states decided it was better placating the South and allowing them to overturn Reconstruction, so began the era of Jim Crow. The use of the confederate flag and the monuments came from that era, not immediately post-Civil Era, but more like the early 20th century, when the Klu Klux Klan formed and whites in the South said, “We are moving back to the way it was.” Many northern whites decided, “It is more trouble than it’s worth. Let them do what they want.” When people say, “This is my heritage.” I want to know, “Heritage for what?” Heritage from the time of the early 20th century when black people got lynched on a regular basis. That’s what you’re really defending here. Even the defence of the South, I don’t see how you can come up with any kind of defence of slavery as an institution.
In Nazi Germany, after WWII, West Germany after WWII, Germans did a real self-reflection about the horrors, but that never happened in the American South. It was, ‘No, we’re proud.” If you saw people with a Nazi flag, you’d collapse, but with a confederate battle flag, ‘It’s common. It’s their heritage.” To people who say, ‘It is my heritage,” I say, “Take a look inside yourself, do you want part of the heritage of ancestors who were slaveholders? Break free of that, you don’t have to endorse that.” There’s something that all of our ancestors did that we were probably ashamed of it, but my ancestors [Laughing] weren’t in this country until after slavery was abolished. But still! Acknowledge that those are wrong, I’m not saying that you have to take personal responsibility. You weren’t alive then, but, by the same token, you have to take personal responsibility for your actions now. Flying a confederate battle flag says to the American neighbour, you’re still under the thumb. It’s not your country; it’s not for you. There’s no way of getting around that. Find something else for heritage, I love southern food. Don’t fly the flag, when you fly that flag, you’re saying to black people, “This country isn’t yours.” We have been struggling with this since day 1 of this country. It is time that we made greater progress, at least, in overcoming that.
Jacobsen: If we take the class or set of all minds, then it is not a mind. Similarly, groups are statistical artifacts. In that, you can find very strong general trends if not weak general trends amongst common groupings. To take the opposing view once more, what if an individual African American or someone who comes later as a black American in general doesn’t care about a confederate flag or is a secularist or secular humanist who doesn’t care about statements about the God concept or statements utilizing the God concept in flags or elsewhere? What, in the cases of individuals, of those types who would amount to, probably, statistical outliers to those classes or groupings? What would be their point of view? What would be a reasonable response to them?
Engel: A reasonable response might be – and I don’t presume to speak for anyone, I think their point of view, “Listen, I live my life. I do what I want. Why do I care about some stupid flag or what it says on some stupid flag?” My answer, “Somebody might be offended.” It violates my rights. You should care that my rights are being violated even if you don’t care that your own rights are being violated. I’ll tell you a story where I learned that once. I went to school on Long Island. It was getting to December. By the way, as a little aside here [Laughing], I love Christmas. I love the lights and the trees. I love how the city lights up. I love going to Rockefeller Center and seeing the big tree. When I went to high school, I had a lot of friends who were Jewish. But I also had friends who weren’t. Somebody said, ‘Hey! Let’s go get a tree and put it up in the courtyard. It’ll be fun.” I thought, ‘It’ll be harmless.” I was speaking to a teacher who I knew and respected, a really good guy.
I said, “Some kids are going to do this.” He said, “You shouldn’t. If one person in this school, if one student, or teacher for that matter, in this school is made to feel that they don’t belong here because of that tree, then that’s the reason why you shouldn’t do it.” It doesn’t have to be everybody or you. Okay, you’re not offended by it. Fine, but if one person is offended to the point, “This is not me, doesn’t represent me, or this school.” I thought about it for a bit and said, “You know what, you’re absolutely right.” And he was. So, a person can feel like they don’t care or doesn’t matter much. Think about the atheist or freethinker who does care, or the black person who does care about the battle flag, you’re defending their rights. I don’t have to be black to think black lives matter. I don’t have to be gay to say, “Gay rights are civil rights.” I don’t have to be an immigrant to say, “No hate, no fear, immigrants are welcome here.” You don’t have to be personally offended by this to defend the rights of people who are.
Jacobsen: What is it like in the state of New York for some of this stuff?
Engel: It depends on where you go. New York City and the rest of New York State [Laughing] are very different. Although, I think atheists and agnostics are still like the last people who it is the last people to dump on. You can’t dump on gay people anymore. But people think – even liberals – it is okay to dump on atheists and agnostics. In the city, it is better because it is a very cosmopolitan place. There are a lot of different viewpoints here. When you go upstate, it is different. A Supreme Court case from about 5 years ago was from New York state that was a horrible decision. It drives me crazy. It was called Town of Greece v. Galloway, where they started every town hall meeting with a Protestant minister. The Supreme Court upheld it, saying, ‘That’s okay,’ as long as different religions can give the prayer. It devolved into different arguments. Then the mischievous Satanists who are really freethinkers wanted to give a prayer or invocation before the meeting. Then some preacher comes and says, ‘If you do not have by Jesus, then you’re going to hell!’ That came from upstate New York. It is much more conservative and much less pluralistic. I think one of the things for this being in New York is so many different people being here, languages spoken, etc. You better respect everybody’s rights or nobody will respect yours. Upstate where it is more homogeneous, it is a little bit dicier, I think, for freethinkers and atheists.
Jacobsen: Jon, sir, it’s been a pleasure.
Engel: Sir, you’re very welcome, Scott.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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