Despite more than a century and a half of endless controversy, the Stars and Bars—better known as the flag of the Confederacy—shares much in common with a certain dreaded racial epithet. Both simply refuse to retreat gracefully into history and stay there.
This week, Georgia courted a new controversy by green-lighting a specialty license plate branded with the Confederate battle flag, at the behest of the state’s Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV). Predictably, the move drew immediate criticism from civil rights activists while sending the SCV into a defensive posture.
Although Gov. Nathan Deal said he wasn’t aware of the request – to be fair, top public officials are rarely involved in such granular requests – you’d think with the embers of outrage still smoldering in South Carolina, the Peach State’s Department of Revenue would let sleeping dogs lie. Alas, no such luck.
Depending on who you ask, the flag is either a symbol of racial intolerance or a harmless emblem of Southern heritage. Either way, to many black Americans the stars and bars have become the functional equivalent of the Swastika, especially older blacks who actually lived under the indignity of Jim Crow and segregation.
For the younger generation, particularly those whose first exposure to the flag was on Friday nights in the early 1980s when The Dukes of Hazzard ruled the airwaves, this issue should have less salience – at least in theory. Still, generations of young blacks still see the flag with as much enmity as their elders, which speaks volumes about why public officials ought to avoid needless provocations over a battle that never seems to fade.
Given that the Confederate flag was once at the center of one of television’s most iconic shows, it seems odd that this controversy continues to boil. Many children of all races used to tune in every week to watch the Duke brothers race across Hazzard county with near-religious excitement. It bears mentioning that in The Dukes of Hazzard’s heyday, the flag emblazoned on the roof of the General Lee elicited little, if any, pushback from audiences.
That said, Georgia’s move illustrates something advocacy groups and activists of all political persuasions often fail to acknowledge. Inviting the government to officially sanction any symbol or belief system is virtually an engraved invitation to trouble. More often than not, it fuels endless criticism, creates a slippery slope and becomes a wedge issue for years.
Maynard Eaton, the spokesman for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, told local media that the state shouldn’t have granted the request. “We don’t have license plates saying ‘Black Power,’” he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Whether you embrace or reject what the rebel flag stands for, it’s hard to argue with Mr. Eaton’s logic. It also underscores another important point: the most productive way to honor heritage is to do so individually, or in concert with a group of like minds.
Free speech, and reverence for any specific heritage, is best done individually, as a private effort, without asking the government to fund or support it in any form or fashion. Blacks’ distaste for the Confederate flag may be palpable, but it has not prevented anyone exercising their First Amendment right to display the symbol. Just ask Kanye West.
Yeezy’s appropriation of the Confederate flag was objectionable to some, yet hailed as an “awesome” display of haute couture by others. Regardless of his motivations, there is an important lesson to draw from his PR stunt, which incidentally has been done before by other rappers. West is a private citizen entitled to wear what he wants when he wants, even if it doesn’t absolve him of consequences or criticism. At no time did he seek taxpayer funds to subsidize his individual choice. He paid for his garb with his own clothing, and his fans are free to emulate him (or not) if they desire.
For Confederate flag supporters, it may be time to ask whether the dregs stirred up over this argument really advances their cause, or honors the heritage they claim to hold dear. Many adhere to the eminently reasonable principle of individual freedom and limited government. So why keep petitioning the government to endorse or subsidize your choice, even if it is a benign symbol of a bygone era?
Sometimes, discretion really is the better part of valor.
The rebel flag can easily be put on a T-shirt, bought on a bumper sticker or a license plate frame. However, with all due respect to the SCV, it seems obvious that the best way to honor America’s heritage is to stick with the good old stars and stripes that unite all 50 states, regardless of race, creed, color or physical geography.