We have seen that South Carolina Republicans refuse to take down the Confederate flag flying over the state capitol, in the wake of a hate crime in which the accused murderer proudly sported the “Stars and Bars” on his car’s plates.
This morning, according to Charleston’s The Post and Courier, the U.S. and State flags at the statehouse are at half mast but the Confederate flag is not.
Writes The Post and Courier’s Schuyler Kropf:
Officials said the reason why the flag has not been touched is that its status is outlined, by law, as being under the protected purview of the full S.C. Legislature, which controls if and when it comes down.
State law reads, in part, the state “shall ensure that the flags authorized above shall be placed at all times as directed in this section and shall replace the flags at appropriate intervals as may be necessary due to wear.”
Many Americans find this state of affairs outrageous. Others are outraged at the suggestion that the old Stars and Bars should be an offense to anyone. It is a symbol of their heritage, they say.
And then there is Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, who told CBN’s The Brody File in May that a tolerant society should be tolerant of intolerance:
A big country, a tolerant country, ought to be able to figure out the difference between discriminating someone because of their sexual orientation and not forcing someone to participate in a wedding that they find goes against their moral beliefs. This should not be that complicated. Gosh, it is right now.
The Supreme Court seems to disagree in another case involving the Confederate flag, one that finds Americans United for Separation of Church and State defending use of the Confederate flag as free speech.
In a press release yesterday, Americans United took issue with a 5-4 SCOTUS ruling, Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc., that says states can regulate the content of vanity plates. Justice Alito, Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Scalia and Kennedy, dissented.
In the Texas case, the Texas Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) wanted “a plate depicting the Confederate flag on the ground” but, surprisingly, the state ruled that “many members of the general public find [it] offensive.”
NPR summarized the arguments pro and con thusly:
“Why should we as Texans want to be reminded of a legalized system of involuntary servitude, dehumanization, rape, mass murder?” asked state Sen. Royce West at a public hearing about the plates in 2011.
But Granvel Block, a former commander of the SCV, defended the proposed plate, countering that expecting the group to delete the image of the flag would be “as unreasonable” as expecting the University of Texas to remove its logo from a plate “because Texas A&M graduates didn’t care for it.”
Of course, this is not a fair comparison. Despite the shockingly high incidence of rape on college campuses (one out of five co-eds), the University of Texas cannot be compared to the Confederate States of America, which institutionalized slavery and defended it by waging the bloodiest war in American history.
The view of the State of Texas was, in the words of Texas Solicitor General Jonathan Mitchell, “The plaintiffs have every right to festoon their cars with bumper stickers or other images that display the Confederate battle flag, but they can’t compel the state of Texas to propagate the Confederate battle flag by displaying it on state-issued license plates.”
And this is the point of view the Supreme Court took, “that messages that private groups succeed in placing on Texas license plates are government messages.”
The SCOTUS decision might cheer some, but as AU’s Rev. Barry W. Lynn points out with regard to the Texas case, “Speech that some people deem ‘offensive’ is still protected speech,” and that “Today’s ruling could make it harder for members of some groups, such as unpopular religions and atheists, to use license plates to express messages.”
Lynn cites the example of a New Jersey woman whose request for 8THEIST “was rejected by officials at the Motor Vehicle Commission – even though even though the state allows plates bearing religious messages, such as “BAPTIST.”
Obviously, the Religious Right is offended by atheism, and many people are offended by the Confederate flag as a symbol of slavery and continued racism.
Justice Alito, in his dissenting opinion, writes,
The Confederate battle flag is a controversial symbol. To the Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans, it is said to evoke the memory of their ancestors and other soldiers who fought for the South in the Civil War. See id., at 15- 16. To others, it symbolizes slavery, segregation, and hatred. Whatever it means to motorists who display that symbol and to those who see it, the flag expresses a viewpoint. The Board rejected the plate design because it concluded that many Texans would find the flag symbol offensive. That was pure viewpoint discrimination.
AU agrees: vanity plates are private speech and should be protected. Should flags then also be protected, if the image of flags are?
Bush claims a tolerant country should tolerate intolerance. But if a country tolerates intolerance, it is by definition not a tolerant country. It is an intolerant country.
What is interesting is that the Religious Right wants to be intolerant. Yet they don’t want people to be intolerant of them. Logically, this does not work at all. If intolerance is permitted, then people certainly have a right to be intolerant of the Religious Right.
You can’t have it both ways.
Of course there is a difference between actions and words, but don’t start jumping up and down yet: it is recognized that even speech can be a form of violence.
It is not easy to say where to draw the line.
What about other symbols? The swastika seems an easy choice, but it was a holy symbol to many religions and to millions before it was turned into a symbol of hate this past century. Or how about the cross, under the sign of which so many millions have been put to death?
The irony of symbolism in Charleston is that it was while under the sign of the cross that nine blacks were murdered, the same cross that for so long was used to uphold “the South’s peculiar institution” – slavery – and to stand beside the symbol of the nation founded on that institution, and now embraced by their killer – the Confederate flag.
Ben Franklin once said, about the murder of a group of Native Americans this time, not blacks, during worship, by the “Paxton Boys” in 1763, that the only crime of which the victims were guilty was that “they had reddish brown Skin, and back Hair,” like the Indians raiding the frontier.
“If it be right to kill Men for such a Reason, then should any Man with a freckled Face and red Hair, kill a Wife or Child of mine, it would be right for me to revenge it, by killing all the freckled, red-haired Men, Women, and Children, I could afterwards anywhere meet with.”
Most of us would call this use of collective guilt a form of intolerance and something more, and throughout U.S. history collective guilt has been unfairly apportioned. If a black person kills somebody, all blacks become suspect. White people get a pass.
We cannot say then that everyone who embraces the Confederate flag is a killer, but we could certainly question their sensibilities in the light of recent events. It may represent your ancestors, but remember what your ancestors were fighting for as it flew over their heads – the right to enslave blacks – to rape, murder, torture, and work them to death.
A tolerant society cannot be tolerant of intolerance. The day it becomes so is the day it ceases to be a tolerant society. The Confederate flag is a symbol of intolerance. I would argue that the fact that some southerners still embrace it is no more a defense than saying some Nazis still embrace the Nazi flag.
A defense might be made in the case of private speech as speech protected by the First Amendment, as AU argues, but the state itself should neither embrace nor display symbols of hate. If a flag symbol on a license plate isn’t protected speech, as SCOTUS ruled, then neither is a flag flying atop a capitol.
I don’t think anyone can argue that the flag flying over South Carolina’s capitol is a form of private speech, but rather, at this point, a defiant support by the state for, and embrace of, levels of intolerance that fuels the state’s 19 hate groups, including six neo-Confederate groups.
Jeb Bush is wrong. But this morning he gets his way. For all that it is perfectly legal, flying that flag – a symbol of intolerance and worse – this morning of all mornings, goes beyond poor taste. It is wrong. And it is an outrage.
Hrafnkell Haraldsson, a social liberal with leanings toward centrist politics has degrees in history and philosophy. His interests include, besides history and philosophy, human rights issues, freedom of choice, religion, and the precarious dichotomy of freedom of speech and intolerance. He brings a slightly different perspective to his writing, being that he is neither a follower of an Abrahamic faith nor an atheist but a polytheist, a modern-day Heathen who follows the customs and traditions of his Norse ancestors. He maintains his own blog, A Heathen’s Day, which deals with Heathen and Pagan matters, and Mos Maiorum Foundation www.mosmaiorum.org, dedicated to ethnic religion. He has also contributed to NewsJunkiePost, GodsOwnParty and Pagan+Politics.