“Pompeo and Trump were both displeased about the banner,” sources told Bloomberg. I’ll bet.
The current U.S. ambassador to South Korea is an interesting figure, a man with sterling military credentials but whose views on certain social issues don’t always align with Trump’s or GOP orthodoxy. I wonder how he got the job. My guess is that it’s yet another case of the president assuming incorrectly that all military figures, especially the brass, are authoritarian and reactionary. He loved having “Mad Dog” Mattis as his secretary of defense until he discovered Mattis’s more internationalist views on foreign policy. (Hence Trump’s new nickname for him, “Moderate Dog.”) Retired Adm. William McRaven, who planned the Bin Laden raid, has been a strident critic of Trump’s illiberal tendencies. And we can only guess how shocked the president was a few weeks ago when his own Joint Chiefs chair, Mark Milley, reportedly strongly objected to using regular troops against looters following George Floyd’s death.
Harry Harris, the ambassador, was a four-star admiral in the Navy before taking this new job. He’s also a man who’s spoken passionately about progress in race relations: “As an Asian American who was reared in the segregated South of the 1960s, I never thought I would see this happening again, especially in the 21st Century,” he wrote recently about Floyd’s killing. Last year his embassy flew the rainbow flag supporting gay rights during “Pride Month” despite a State Department order not to do so. The rainbow flag went up again this year — but it wasn’t alone:
The U.S. Embassy stands in solidarity with fellow Americans grieving and peacefully protesting to demand positive change. Our #BlackLivesMatter banner shows our support for the fight against racial injustice and police brutality as we strive to be a more inclusive & just society. pic.twitter.com/Y4Thr2MRdw
— U.S. Embassy Seoul (@USEmbassySeoul) June 13, 2020
The ambassador himself tweeted approvingly of the gesture:
When Dr. Benjamin Mays delivered Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s eulogy in 1968, he said Dr. King’s "unfinished work on earth must truly be our own." Recent weeks remind us that MLK’s work remains unfinished. Friends, I believe that work falls on each of us today.
— Chargé d’Affaires Rob Rapson (@USAmbROK) June 13, 2020
As noted, the banner reportedly annoyed both of Harris’s bosses, but the reason given is interesting. I would have thought Pompeo would say that it’s inappropriate for a U.S. diplomatic outpost to be seen as taking sides in any sort of political dispute here at home. The embassy represents U.S. interests to the people of South Korea, it doesn’t comment from afar on American political developments. But that would have been a tricky position under the circumstances. Critics would have said, “Do you mean to imply that there are two sides on the question of whether black lives matter? Which side of that question are you on, Mr. Secretary?” It’s one thing for the embassy to advertise an official position on whether, say, taxes should be cut or raised on American citizens. In that case they’d be meddling in a traditional domestic policy dispute. It’s another thing for it to advertise an official position on what are supposed to be generally agreed upon American values, such as whether racist double standards are proper or not. There may well be two “sides” to that issue in practice but no politician in America would admit to it.
According to CNN, the State Department’s official reason for getting the banner taken down is “the fact that Black Lives Matter is a non-profit organization and that the US government does not encourage contributions to the group or promote any specific organization.” That is, it’s not the message that black lives matter that supposedly bothered Pompeo and Trump. It’s the fact that some people would take the banner as an endorsement of the organization Black Lives Matter. More from WaPo:
An embassy spokesman said U.S. Ambassador Harry Harris, a retired Navy admiral, ordered it taken down to avoid the “misperception” that taxpayer dollars were used to support an organization.
“The Ambassador decided to put the Black Lives Banner up to communicate a message of solidarity with Americans concerned with racism, especially racial violence against African Americans,” the spokesman said. “He wanted to highlight the enduring American values of racial equality, freedom of speech, and the right to peacefully protest.
“However, the Ambassador’s intent was not to support or encourage donations to any specific organization. To avoid the misperception that American taxpayer dollars were spent to benefit such organizations, he directed that the banner be removed.”
They didn’t need to go that route. Pompeo could have said instead that while no one in the administration disagrees that black lives matter, there are in fact Democratic and Republican positions on police reform — and BLM is associated with the left. Flying the BLM banner could thus be understood as support for a leftist agenda on contentious issues stemming from the death of Floyd, from defunding the police to ending qualified immunity. It’s not a tendentious message generally, but in the context of the present political moment it is.
So … why didn’t he just say that?
The rainbow flag was also taken down today even though there’s no particular organization associated with that symbol. Hmmm. Question: If Harris hung a different banner expressing support for reform but taking care not to associate it with any particular group, would that be allowed? For instance, what about a banner that read, “End Police Brutality”? If that’s also too issue-specific in context, how about just “Justice for Black Americans” or something like that?
I’ll leave you with this new data from Pew, which asked about the Black Lives Matter “movement.” Majorities of all races and a sizable minority of Republicans say they at least somewhat support it.