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“License Plates Are Not Bumper Stickers”: When License Plates Take On An Obvious Political Tinge, Sparks Fly

A group called the Sons of Confederate Veterans has asked Texas to issue a license plate featuring the Confederate battle flag, which many consider an emblem of slavery. Texas said no, and the Sons are suing because the state accepts other messages for specialty plates.

The Sons have a point.

North Carolina issues a license reading, “Choose Life.” When lawmakers there refused to allow a competing abortion-rights message, the American Civil Liberties Union sued.

The ACLU has a point, as well.

States have jumped on the slippery slope of letting various business and social interests promote themselves on the specialty license plates. Now they have slid into the U.S. Supreme Court, which has taken the Sons of Confederate Veterans case.

The justices have examined license plates before. In the 1977 Wooley v. Maynard case, Jehovah’s Witnesses held that the New Hampshire state motto stamped on all license plates, “Live Free or Die,” offended their religious convictions. The court ruled that New Hampshire residents had a right to cover up those words on their plates.

How about no messages on state-issued license plates? Or perhaps limiting them to such neutral bragging as Wild, Wonderful (West Virginia), Evergreen State (Washington), Sweet Home (Alabama) or Garden State (New Jersey)?

I’ll admit to a soft spot for environmental messages — such as calls on Florida plates to protect whales, dolphins, sea turtles, manatees and largemouth bass — but not for blatant advertising. Sports teams are big businesses, and they have specialty plates.

Rhode Island offers a plate featuring Mr. Potato Head, marketed by the local toymaker, Hasbro. The fees car owners pay for such plates may go to a good cause (in Mr. Potato Head’s case, a food bank), and states take their cut. Still, it’s an ad.

But when license plates take on an obvious political tinge, sparks fly. And that’s why a blanket “no” to specialty plates is the right way to go.

Corey Brettschneider, professor of political science at Brown University, doesn’t agree. He sees license plate messages as “mixed speech.” Because the United States allows a freedom of expression unmatched by any other country, the state has an obligation to defend its values, he writes in his book When the State Speaks, What Should It Say?: How Democracies Can Protect Expression and Promote Equality.

Brettschneider believes that Texas was correct in turning down the plates displaying the Confederate Stars and Bars but that North Carolina was wrong in rejecting the abortion rights plates.

I asked him, What about the argument that many see the Confederate flag more as a historical artifact than as an endorsement of slavery? Brettschneider responded that the flag’s history, including its use in opposing civil rights legislation, suggests otherwise. And even if the intent of some of its backers is pure, the considerations are bigger than the views of a private person.

Texas would be tied to the symbol, he said. “Texas has a deep duty to avoid an association between the state’s message and a racist message.”

But who speaks for the state? What happens when one set of officials is replaced by another with entirely different interpretations?

“The Constitution requires deference to the democratic process,” Brettschneider answered, “but it also sometimes requires limits on that process.”

We do agree that bumper stickers are a great invention. They are a frugal way to advertise one’s religion, preferred candidate, dog’s breed, football team or sense of humor. State approval not required.

As for specialized messages on license plates, I persist in opposing them all. Professor Brettschneider’s approach is well constructed and certainly more nuanced, but managing its tensions would be a hard job.

 

By: Froma Harrop, The National Memo, January 13, 2015

January 14, 2015 Posted by | Confederacy, States Rights, Texas | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Imagine; The Democratic States Of America”: Is It Finally Time For Us Northeners To Encourage The South To Go Its Own Way?

I have a confession to make: I’m prejudiced against the South. You might even call me an anti-Southern bigot.

I’m not proud of it. It’s just a fact. I grew up a liberal, secular Jew in New York City and southern Connecticut — a Yankee through and through. The thought of “my” America being yoked together with a region that fought a bloody, traitorous war to defend the institution of slavery and a way of life based upon it — well, it just felt morally grotesque. That this same region persisted in de jure racism (backed up by brutal violence) right up through the decade prior to my birth in 1969 only made it more galling.

I became more conservative in my 20s. But it was the conservatism of the urbane, formerly left-liberal, mostly Jewish neocons, which is (or at least used to be) the furthest thing from the Southern, populist wing of the Republican Party that, in our time, sets the tone and agenda for the party as a whole. And as I’ve moved a few clicks back in the direction of my youthful liberalism over the past decade and become an unapologetic anti-Republican, my distaste for the South hasn’t diminished.

That’s why I get a little kick out of it any time I hear someone make an argument in favor of Southern secession — whether it’s a Southerner who wants to get the hell out of Obama’s godless Euro-socialist dystopia or a Northern liberal wishing the yokels would do exactly that.

Sure, Lincoln was willing to sacrifice vast quantities of blood and treasure to keep the South from bolting for the exits. But that was eons ago. And some days — like today, less than a week from the likely seizure of the Senate by the Southern-dominated GOP — I find myself wishing the South would make another go of it.

Today, the Democrats control the Senate by a margin of 53 to 45. Two senators, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine, call themselves independents but caucus with the Democrats, bringing their effective total up to 55 seats. The House of Representatives, meanwhile, is held by the Republican Party by a margin of 233-199.

But without the 11 states of the Confederacy? Whoa boy. By my calculations, Democrats (with Sanders and King) would control the Senate by a wildly lopsided margin of 49 to 29 seats. And the House — entrenched power-base of the post-Gingrich GOP backed up by jimmy-rigged gerrymandering? Without the South, Democrats would hold the House easily, 160-135.

Then there’s the White House, where even with the South the Democrats hold an electoral edge rooted in ideology and demographics. If the 2012 election had been held in a post-secession America, Barack Obama’s 332-206 Electoral College romp would have become a monumental wipeout of 290-88. As for 2004, it would have gone from a relatively narrow win (286-251) for George W. Bush to a John Kerry landslide of 251-133.

Without the South, the country could very well be renamed the Democratic States of America.

Secession would have numerous policy implications. The deficit would likely shrink, since despite the South’s fondness for anti-government rhetoric and ideology, the region benefits substantially more from federal programs than it pays into the federal treasury. Serious gun control legislation might actually make it through Congress. ObamaCare would probably work better (the South has led the way in refusing to expand Medicaid), but it might also be possible to pass the kind of sweeping reform of the health-care system (single payer) that proved impossible for Obama.

In sum, the U.S. without the South would look an awful lot more like Canada and Europe than it currently does — while the newly independent Confederate States of America would likely look like, well, nowhere else in the civilized world. Rates of poverty, already among the highest in the nation, would probably leap higher still. Guns would be ubiquitous. Without a meddlesome Supreme Court to uphold reproductive rights, women in the New Confederacy might find it impossible to obtain abortions. Something similar would probably hold for gay rights (not just with regard to marriage, but even including sexual activity itself) and, of course, for African American voting rights. (Ten out of 11 states in the South have passed voting restrictions in the past four years. Imagine what would happen without what remains of the Voting Rights Act and the oversight of federal courts?)

So what do you say? Is it finally time for us Northeners to encourage the South to go its own way?

I’d be inclined to say yes, except for one thing. I have family members in the Midwest who hold views as conservative as those that prevail across wide swaths of the South. If it’s ideology and culture (rather than region) that divides us, then shouldn’t these Fox News aficionados join in the exodus? And come to think of it, my neighbor down the street in the Philadelphia suburbs has a Tea Party bumper sticker on his pickup truck. Maybe he’d be better off relocating somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon line, too.

You get the idea.

The dysfunction of our public institutions and the ideological polarization and self-segregation of our culture can easily convince us that we lack any common ground with those on opposite sides of the various conflicts that divide us. And yet here we are, sharing the same soil, the same history, the same democratic norms and ideals. If we don’t want to set a centrifugal precedent that states and even smaller groups of citizens are free to break off from the country and set out on their own at the first sign of tension — a precedent that if acted on with any regularity could easily lead to the dissolution of the nation itself — we need to accept that we’re stuck with each other and have no responsible choice but to learn, somehow, to get along.

Maybe that Lincoln fellow was onto something after all.

 

By: Damon Linker, The Week, October 29, 2014

October 29, 2014 Posted by | Confederacy, Republicans, The South | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Why This Part Of Your Culture?”: A Question About Southern Culture And The Confederate Flag

Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a confirmation hearing for Michael Boggs, a conservative Georgia state judge whom President Obama nominated for a federal judgeship as part of a deal to get Republicans to allow votes on some of his other nominees. (Lesson: Obstructionism works, so keep doing it!) Boggs got grilled by Democrats over some of the votes he took as a state legislator, including one to keep the Confederate stars and bars as part of the Georgia state flag. Which gives me the opportunity to get something off my chest.

Before I do though, it should be noted that there are plenty of white Southerners who wish that their states had long ago put the Confederate flag issue behind them, and agree with us Yankees that it’s a symbol of treason and white supremacy, and not the kind of thing you want to fly over your state house or put on a license plate, as you can in Georgia.

Boggs claimed in his hearing that he was offended by the Confederate flag, but voted for it because that’s what his constituents wanted. In other words, he’s not a racist, just a coward. Fair enough. But to Southerners who say, as some inevitably do, that the Confederate flag in particular, and Confederate fetishism more generally, reflect not support for slavery or white supremacy but merely an honoring of southern “culture,” my question is this: Why this part of your culture?

Because there are a lot of great things about Southern culture. There’s music, and food, and literature, and a hundred other things you can honor and uphold and celebrate. Why spend so much time and effort upholding the one part of your cultural heritage that is about slavery?

Couldn’t you just let that one thing go? To say, we love our culture, and we’re going to continue it and share it with you. But the slavery thing, and the treason against the United States thing? Let’s just put that where it belongs and get on with building a future. We can talk about the Civil War, and seek to understand it in all its complexity. We can teach our kids about it. But we’re not going to put the Confederate flag on our license plates anymore. Would that be so hard?

 

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, May 13, 2014

 

May 14, 2014 Posted by | Confederacy, Racism, Slavery | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Slavery Nostalgia Is Real, And It’s Dangerous”: Yearning For The Past Of Segregation And Slavery Is Neither Quaint Nor Harmless

Northerners may be a little shocked that anyone could feel a bit nostalgic for slavery, in the manner of the government-hating Nevada rancher, Cliven Bundy. But in the South, such sentiments are hardly unheard of, even if they are usually muttered in private over a few bourbons rather than spoken at a news conference.

Occasionally, in fact, they are expressed or embraced by public figures. A particularly relevant case started about 14 years ago, when Maurice Bessinger, owner of a chain of South Carolina barbecue restaurants called Maurice’s Piggy Park, began distributing pro-slavery tracts in his stores. One of the tracts, called the “Biblical View of Slavery,” said the practice wasn’t really so bad, because it was permitted in the Bible. It argued that many black slaves in the South “blessed the Lord” for their condition, because it was better than their life in Africa.

When the tract was discovered, Mr. Bessinger was denounced and his restaurants boycotted. Many retail stores pulled his distinctive (to be kind) yellow mustardy barbecue sauce from their shelves.

But one prominent South Carolinian decided to stand up for Mr. Bessinger. Glenn McConnell, then a state senator from Charleston, stocked the sauce in his Confederate “art gallery,” which was loaded with secessionist flags and uniforms, as well as toilet paper bearing the image of Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. When a local power utility banned its trucks from the parking lots of Piggie Park, Mr. McConnell threatened a legislative vendetta against the company.

Mr. Bessinger died in February. Mr. McConnell is now the lieutenant governor of South Carolina.

In that state, it is not considered a stain to have fought passionately to keep the Confederate flag flying on top of the Capitol dome, or to have appeared on a notorious white-nationalist radio program in 2007. (All of this is meticulously chronicled on the website of the invaluable Southern Poverty Law Center.)

No reputational damage was done even when Mr. McConnell, a well-known Civil War re-enactor and then president pro-tem of the Senate, appeared in a 2010 photograph dressed as a Confederate general, standing between a black man and a woman dressed as slaves. The man was wearing a floppy hat and holding a washboard; the woman wore an apron and a bandanna. When black leaders protested, Senator McConnell said the photo actually showed how far the state had come in race relations.

“If somebody is trying to be politically correct and use a tunnel vision on it and hook in the slavery issue, they’re on a slippery slope toward narrow-mindedness,” he told the Charleston Post and Courier, using a justification that Mr. Bundy might want to try. “They should extend the charity of understanding. Receive it in the spirit that it is presented.”

A few weeks ago, Mr. McConnell was named the president of the College of Charleston, under pressure from likeminded state legislators who have decided the school is taking academic freedom a little too literally. Religious conservatives in the legislature were angry that the college assigned students to read “Fun Home,” a memoir with gay themes by Alison Bechdel, and tried to cut its budget. Despite a vote of no confidence by the faculty, and no experience running an educational institution, Mr. McConnell will take over the presidency of the school in July.

The College of Charleston had no black students until 1967, having gone private in the 1950s to avoid integration. Even now, once again a public institution, only 6 percent of its students are black, one of the lowest percentages for a college or university in the state. Nostalgia for a past of segregation and slavery is neither quaint nor harmless; it remains a very present danger.

By: David Firestone, The Opinion Pages, The New York Times, April 24, 2014

April 25, 2014 Posted by | Confederacy, Slavery | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Lose That Cause”: Don’t Name Streets Or Army Bases For Confederate Leaders

Alexandria, Va., is finally getting around to deinstitutionalizing the celebration of Confederate military leaders – maybe the U.S. Army can get around to following suit?

I probably shouldn’t be surprised, but I have to admit to being taken aback when I learned – thanks to the Old Town Alexandria Patch – that the city where I reside still has a law on its books requiring that when streets are named, those “running in a generally north-south direction shall, insofar as possible, bear the names of confederate military leaders.”

I understand that the Confederacy generates a certain amount of romanticism down here below the Mason-Dixon line, but let’s keep some perspective: This was a cause dedicated (a) to preserving the right to own other human beings as chattel and (b) to violently overthrowing the United States government and sundering this country. The idea that we should honor the leaders of this attempt to destroy the United States is offensive and absurd. It boggles my mind that I live a stone’s throw from Jefferson Davis Highway and just a few minutes’ drive from (Robert E.) Lee Highway.

As the Patch’s Drew Hansen notes, the bit of municipal code in question was enacted during the 1950s when legal segregation was entering its final, dismal throes. And good for Alexandria Councilman Justin Wilson for introducing an ordinance which would repeal the Confederate naming mandate. (His bill would also take off the books Alexandria’s law against unwed couples living together.)

Hopefully when the council considers this bill later this week, the South won’t rise again. And maybe the U.S. Army will take note.

As an anonymous active-duty U.S. Army officer argued in a guest post at Tom Ricks’ ForeignPolicy.com blog, it’s “ridiculous” and “absurd” that U.S. Army bases bear the names of Confederate generals. These men, after all, led troops in battle against U.S. forces. Ricks’ anonymous correspondent in turn refers back to a New York Times op-ed by Jamie Malanowski from last spring detailing the list of Confederate-named bases. Malanowski wrote:

Yes – the United States Army maintains bases named after generals who led soldiers who fought and killed United States Army soldiers; indeed, who may have killed such soldiers themselves. Only a couple of the officers are famous. Fort Lee, in Virginia, is of course named for Robert E. Lee, a man widely respected for his integrity and his military skills. Yet, as the documentarian Ken Burns has noted, he was responsible for the deaths of more Army soldiers than Hitler and Tojo. … Now African-Americans make up about a fifth of the military. The idea that today we ask any of these soldiers to serve at a place named for a defender of a racist slavocracy is deplorable; the thought that today we ask any American soldier to serve at a base named for someone who killed United States Army troops is beyond absurd. Would we have a Fort Rommel? A Camp Cornwallis?

Seriously. Let’s honor American heroes with our streets and military installations, not people who tried to destroy this country.

 

By: Robert Schlesinger, U. S. News and World Report, January 21, 2014

January 22, 2014 Posted by | Confederacy | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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