In his critically acclaimed novel The Reader, Bernhard Schlink tells the story of a young German boy who comes of age in the decade after World War II. The horrors of the Nazi atrocities, which German civilians were forced to acknowledge, play a significant role in shaping the consciousness of young Michael Berg. It is a novel that explores what it means for a people to come to terms with the past.
In America, our “holocaust” is the legacy of slavery and here, in the twenty-first century, one hundred and fifty years later, we have not yet come to terms with it.
I am reminded of this, again, by a story in the news. The Supreme Court agreed to hear a case in which a group calling itself Sons of Confederate Veterans is suing the state of Texas over a Texas ban on license plates bearing the Confederate flag.
Do we really have to listen to this again?
The plaintiffs, the “Sons,” claim that the flag is a symbol that celebrates southern heritage.
And the swastika is a symbol that celebrates German nationalism.
Of course, the plaintiffs will argue that the Texas ban is a violation of the first amendment right to free speech.
Now, here’s what the first amendment says:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
So, the argument goes, putting a Confederate flag on a license plate is a form of speech. The “speech” being: “I am proud of my southern heritage.” An appeals court that ruled in favor of the “Sons” said that Texas had discriminated against the group’s view that “the Confederate flag is a symbol of sacrifice, independence and Southern heritage.” And a spokesperson for the “Sons” said “It’s a heritage organization. It’s not a bunch of racists. It’s a group that longs for reconciliation and progress, but will not forget the past.”
I mean, certainly the “Sons” are entitled to hold their view as to what they believe the Confederate flag is a symbol of, but, as Mark Twain said, you can put your shoes in the oven but that don’t make ‘em biscuits. And who can actually verify the claim that the group “longs for reconciliation?”
After all, a great first step towards reconciliation would be to ditch the flag thing.
But the real issue here is not “free” speech or the protection of “offensive” speech. For one, no speech is involved. If a member of the “Sons” got up and said “Abolishing slavery was the biggest mistake America ever made,” or “I don’t want to live next door to no niggers,” that would be offensive speech, but something the state of Texas could do nothing about. Even slack-jawed, white-trash rednecks are entitled to their opinion.
What if he hangs a noose from a branch of his tree, or from the branches of tree in his neighbor’s yard, a neighbor who happens to be black? Is that free speech? A noose hanging from a tree is as much of a symbol as the Confederate flag.
Or is it threatening behavior, something that the “state,” the law, has to get involved in?
In Mississippi, Graeme Harris of Georgia was in fact arrested for hanging a noose from a statue on the University of Mississippi campus. He was charged with civil rights violations and “using a threat of force to intimidate black students because of their race.” Along with the noose he also placed an earlier version of a Georgia flag that prominently featured a Confederate flag. The state of Mississippi did not press charges. The U.S. Justice Department had to step in. History repeating itself.
We, that is, the southern states, have been fighting the Civil War for the past one hundred and fifty years, through the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow laws, and now this
But there is something else about this story that is not right. And that is the fact that it is the state of Texas that is waging this battle. Texas has elected more Tea Party candidates at all levels of government than any other state in the Union by a wide margin, and Libertarianism runs strong in that sort of ilk.
(You know what a Libertarian is: someone who is ten degrees to the right of center when times are good and ten degrees to the left of center when it affects them personally.)
Why would the Governor of Texas want to pursue this sort of case? They claim that “the state” should not be forced to endorse an opinion it does not share.
Now, I have never denied being The World’s Most Cynical Man but, c’mon, cut me some slack. Texans are still talking about seceding from the Union (we’re still waiting). They illegally gerrymandered their state’s congressional districts to guarantee a Republican majority and virtually negate the African-American vote.
My guess is that they are hoping the right-wing activists judges on the Supreme Court will uphold their right to threaten and intimidate Americans they don’t like with racist symbols like the Confederate flag. Texas has chosen it’s battle.