Is the right to display a Confederate flag a matter of free speech? Or should anything related to a government function, whether it is a building or an instrument of law, remain unfettered by symbols that are offensive to millions? While the answer seems obvious, this debate is heating up again as our nation endures the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. This milestone is leading Confederate heritage groups to become more active in their efforts to cleanse our cultural memories of what they deem the “negative association,” rather than historical relationship, of slavery and the Old South.
Groups organized to maintain memories of the Confederacy without the stain of human bondage have been pushing to have their traditions integrated into the mainstream. Of particular note are the activities of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), which lobbies extensively to protect the rights of drivers to display Confederate flags on license plates (that they sell for a profit). According to USA Today, nine states allow drivers to display the rebel flag, with SCV being largely behind this accomplishment. The organization is now seeking similar protection in Florida, Kentucky and Texas, furthering its cause. Talk about special rights.
Now SCV is one step closer to reaching its Florida goal. On March 30, in response to a law suit filed by the loyal southern sons, a Florida court ruled that the state cannot control what residents display on vanity plates. This paves the way for SCV to promote their bill for specifically ensuring protection for the contentious flag on cars.
Is this madness – or American fairness at its finest? Of course the NAACP has spoken out against these trends. But groups like SCV argue that times have changed along with the emotions behind this symbol. American cultural historian Tim Stanley makes an interesting argument on their behalf:
The debate has become tragically bound up with questions of race. Opponents of the displaying of the Stars and Bars on government property say that it symbolizes racial discrimination. The SCV reasonably counters that the meaning of symbols can change over time. In the mid 19th century, most Protestant Americans would have shuddered at the sight of the Irish harp. It represented the mass immigration of hordes of Catholics, which prudish WASPs associated with drunkenness, idleness, gambling and prostitution. Nowadays, the harp means Guinness, and it is hoisted joyously on St Patrick’s Day – a day on which all Americans discover some hidden Irish heritage, hit the pubs and drink as if they don’t want to live.
Likewise, the Stars and Bars now represents something much more than racial hierarchy. To most people who hoist it in their front yards, it stands for honor and tradition and the Old World chivalry of Gone With the Wind. They revel in its outrageous defense of vanishing values, its uncompromising statement against the decadence of modern life and the voluminous size of federal government. The Civil War is as potent to many white Southerners as the Blitz is to a Brit. Regardless of the historical reality, it is their finest hour. To take that away from them seems rather cruel.
Of course, there is an ugly side to Confederate heritage. The refusal to forget has become obstinacy in some quarters. In others it is a socially acceptable way to express “white pride”, that strange belief that there’s something exceptional about our pinky-grey race of pot-bellied Europeans.
Stanley, writing as a British “pinky-grey pot-bellied European,” cannot understand the pain with which the Confederate flag pierces our souls. From our perspective, that flag is the continuous thread that unites the period of the Civil War to modern expressions of race hate such as the Klan. Our very recent ancestors were routinely terrorized by neighbors under that banner while struggling under the hypocritical “freedom” of Jim Crow law served from the back doors and segregated water fountains of southern communities. The Stars and Bars emboldened the perpetrators of beatings and lynchings with vicious pride. This emblem is a potent sign in the south of today that if you are black, you are not welcome where it is flown.
So, the answer is no. No group has the right to re-paint American history in layers of fantasy that only serve to bolster a backwards-looking community’s fragile relationship with a complicated past. If people want to claim “free speech” in order to willfully white-wash a period of institutionalized rape, murder, slavery, psychological oppression, economic destruction (and more!) right up until the 1960s – they DO NOT have the right to use government-issued license plates as the canvas for this bizarre re-imagining. The history SCV wants to diminish are the deepest wounds rendered as eternal evidence of man’s inhumanity to man. And they want us to just forget it?
It’s highly alarming that so many Americans are electing mass denial as the means of coping with social difficulties of complex origins. In case people haven’t noticed, we seem to have a problem dealing with something called REALITY in this country when race and politics mix. This new movement is a rebirth of the birthers pain, the outcries of a disturbed citizenry wanting to remain infantile when it comes to letting go of dim recollections of an all-powerful past. The Sons of Confederate Veterans and groups like them are using any means necessary to avoid burning racial memories, while denying the conflicts they continue to spawn.
SCV needs to keep their fantasy role-playing at home, where they can engage in all the denial they want (and perhaps a little BDSM, slavery-inspired whipping), and out of the public sphere. This means keeping the confederate flag off license plates. It is a shame that this is already a protected “right” in nine states. I avoid the south for reasons just like this.