Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Great Confederate Flag Float Controversy

[Note to readers from beyond Doña Ana County: 4 July this year, at an annual Electric Light Parade, First Place (and $ 1,000) went to a Tea Party float; but because the float had, among various flags, a Confederate Flag, the award understandably sparked controversy.  Like the drunken mayor in Sunland Park, it made national news for a day as one of those features about the stupid stuff that happens out in the sticks; but it has remained quite a topic of discussion here.  Lots of letters to the editor and remarks at City Council meetings -- on both sides.   Weeks ago now I wrote this as a possible column, but also didn't want to contribute unduly to the publicity over it.  I had more urgent things to write about than Tea Party mischief.]

The Great Confederate Flag Float Controversy? What’s sad is that the Tea Party is too cowardly to be candid. What’s important is not to let this nonsense lure us into an overreaction that would intimidate free speech.

I know that flag. I saw it on cars driven by people who threatened me and chased me back out onto the dirt roads (where the colored stayed), when I was a civil rights worker in the South in 1965.

It was the flag of a "nation" created to defend slavery.

As Walt Rubel has noted, the Civil War was followed by a widespread and largely successful effort to erase the uglier aspects of the Confederacy and portray the rebels as glorious gentlemen who fought to defend a beautiful lost world of southern belles and darkies who laughed and sang.  Think "Birth of a Nation" and "Gone with the Wind."

Still, the Confederate flag on a float in a 4th of July parade, in Las Cruces should offend us, as it was meant to do.

The Tea Party, of course, sees things differently. Many of its pals, including Bristol Palin’s parents and the coyote-killer in Texas, have cheerfully threatened or advocated secession. Just as the Federal Government protection of freed slaves offended the post-war South, the Tea Party rages against the Federal Government’s attempts to protect our air, lands, water, and jobs. And poor people’s health.

Including the Confederate flag on the float was a sly slap at the Federal Government and those who don’t share the Tea Party’s views. Along with John Paul Jones’s "Don’t Tread on Me," it was meant to express the Tea Party refusal to adhere to political correctness.

So far, so good. Or at least somewhat honest.

I don’t know why the Tea Party turned tail and responded to the public outcry with a very ludicrous explanation that, well, the Confederate flag briefly flew over Santa Fe during the Civil War. "It’s just history.  Our float showed flags that flew over New Mexico."

Excuse me?

If it’s "just history," why didn’t we see a Mexican flag? Mexico possessed this territory for a good deal longer than a weekend.

"Flags that flew over New Mexico?" Did John Paul Jones sail down the Rio Grande?

If it’s "just history," would the Tea Party in Maryland or Washington, D.C. have included a British flag? The Brits sacked Washington during the War of 1812, chased the President and Dolly from the White House, and undoubtedly ran up a flag or two. Why shouldn’t a parade celebrating our independence include a British flag too. It’s just history.

The pretense of surprise that "just history" offended anyone is an added joke. If a Japanese flag had offended a former POW, would we be surprised? If a Nazi flag on the float had offended people whose parents and grandparents perished at Dachau, would we be surprised? Gee, let’s fly the flag of a "nation" that enslaved and tortured blacks, a flag which continued to accompany harassment and even murders of southern citizens for more than a century after the war’s end. If it offends those citizens or their kids and grandkids, we’ll feign surprise.

That feigned surprise? If it were real, it would be even more damning.   Is the Tea Party telling us "We're so clueless that we'd never guess the Confederate flag could offend anyone n the contemporary U.S."?   Is it saying, "Look, we're so ignorant we didn't realize that the flag flew over a "nation" that came into existence solely to protect and extend slavery"?  Are its spokespersons confessing that they didn't realize that black people were enslaved (and discriminated against for more than another century after that) and that black people live in Las Cruces and might notice the flag?

Had those folks had the courage of their convictions, they might have said, "We see the U.S. Government growing nearly as evil and imperial as the British Monarchy, and the Confederate Flag symbolizes a spirit of rebellion we share, even if we have no intention of expressing that spirit violently.  We want to thumb our nose at that government, and we don't much care if that offends some people."

Surrounding society should not be goaded into overreacting and curtailing free speech. Neither the Tea Party nor the American Nazi Party nor some nut holding a sign saying the world is coming to an end justifies departure from our beliefs and constitutional protections.

Sure, it’s offensive. My first reaction was to wonder about the judges, but I must accept their reported explanation that they just looked at the lights and didn’t see the flag.

Our part of the world has now made the national news for the drunkenness of Sunland Park’s former mayor and the childish bad manners of the Tea Party.

We have a lot more to offer the world. But the way to make that clear isn’t to exacerbate an embarrassing situation. It might be to ignore the Tea Party. It might even be to overcome their arguments against an Organ Mountains / Desert Peak National Monument and invite the world to see our unique mix of beautiful country and interesting history.

Should the Tea Party put the Confederate flag on a float that’s part of a public parade, where people of all ethnic groups could be watching with their children? Of course not.

Should the City of Las Cruces regulate the content of political expression at such an event? No. Any thoughtful person must feel tempted; but no.

Besides, as with children who act out, why should we give the Tea Party the attention it so craves, particularly at the cost of abandoning our deep tradition of freedom of expression?

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