There Goes the Robert E. Lee
by Paul Morantz
Like my father before me, I will work the land,
And like my brother before me, I took a rebel stand.
He was just eighteen, proud and brave,
but a Yankee laid him in his grave.
I swear by the blood below my feet
You can’t raise a Caine back up when he’s in defeat
The night they drove old Dixie down
And all the bells were ringing,…
Guess we won’t be hearing “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” on the radio any more.
Why, you ask? Well, doesn’t it refer to a dark time in our history, an era drenched in lynchings, hatred, , the shameful enslavement of a race of people and a bloody and destructive civil war? We certainly wouldn’t want people to remember all that, would we? Better it all be “Gone With the Wind,” right?
That seems to be the logical conclusion to be drawn from the current public outrage over the display of the Confederate flag, sparked by the tragic killing of nine innocents at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina. It was a despicable act, and when the alleged perpetrator was seen on the Internet spouting hateful racist beliefs and proudly clutching the Confederate flag, the resulting public outcry was understandable.
And way over the top.
Suddenly, “The Dukes of Hazzard” were persona non grata, pulled from television rerun eternity (otherwise known as TV Land), presumably because the Duke brothers’ car, the General Lee, displayed the Confederate flag. EBay and Amazon renounced the offering of Confederate flag merchandise for sale and South Carolina, faced with the loss of lucrative future NCAA basketball playoff games, decided to remove the flag from its state grounds. Even Disney World reacted—or over-reacted, depending upon your point of view—by pulling the flag from a display of 40 historical banners in the American Adventure pavilion at its Epcot theme park in Orlando, Fla. Some suggested that displaying the flag should be classified as a hate crime.
Don’t get me wrong. I have no love for the Confederate flag and what it symbolizes to many. If state governments choose not to display or sell it, that’s fine with me. They have every legal right to display or sell whatever they want. I certainly would be revolted by a toy hanging tree and, as a Jew, I’m offended by how-many-Jews-in-an-ashtray jokes. But, like Lenny Bruce and Larry Flynt, bans on free speech offend me even more. As the philosopher Voltaire famously said: “I do not agree with a word you say but I will defend to my death your right to say it.”
The ability to freely express our thoughts and opinions remains this nation’s greatest strength; it brought down slavery, the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon and and even the ill-conceived Mideast contretemps ginned up by George W. Bush. As stated in an 1860 essay: “Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist. That, of all rights, is the dread of tyrants. It is the right which they first of all strike down.” The author was none other than Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist and escaped slave.
If free speech is to mean anything in this country, it can’t be just for those who agree with the majority. That’s not how it works. If American Nazis carrying swastika-festooned flags were allowed to march in Skokie, Ill., a town full of Holocaust survivors, in 1977, how can we now ban the Confederate flag on grounds of stirring up ill feelings? I didn’t think the Skokie march was a great idea, but Voltaire would have been proud.
Beyond the lofty ideals of free speech, there’s also a common sense argument here. Why would we want to erase history? Should we scrub our history books free of Nazis and the Confederacy and the Inquisition? If so, we would lose a lot of important knowledge, historical perspective and a couple of pretty funny Mel Brooks movies.
Let’s walk down this slippery slope. If the Confederate flag must be banned because it symbolizes slavery, what do we make of the American flag, which was conceived in 1776 when the nation was steeped in slavery and some of our most beloved forefathers owned slaves? There is, after all, a reason that so many black families bear the name Jefferson. Should the Stars and Stripes be banned? Why should we celebrate Columbus Day, honoring the explorer who put to death more than a million Native Americans to make way for European carpetbaggers? Should Mexican flags be banned in San Antonio? If slavery is the issue, should we ban all symbols of the Roman, Greek and Egyptian civilizations, which were largely built on slavery?
Besides, we northerners don’t come to this debate with completely clean hands. For all our noble talk of abolishing slavery, our predecessors were guilty of much unnecessary pillaging and destruction during the war and profiteering by carpetbaggers afterwards. Could there not have been a more elegant solution that avoided the destruction of the South and the loss of so many lives on both sides?
The Confederate flag symbolizes much that is shameful and despicable, but also much that is proud and honorable. It is a symbol of a civilization gone, and a reminder of mankind’s terrible propensity for honor, politeness and horror. You can’t legislate history away and you shouldn’t try. I expect government-owned entities to display or sell relics of history. In a World War II Museum I expect to see the Nazi patch. It isn’t a patch—or a flag—that offends, but the ideas that created them. The relics remind us of humanity’s many mistakes–and that’s not a bad thing. Somehow, we have to get past this collective hysteria and accept the good, the bad and the ugly from our past lest, as the old saw goes, we condemn ourselves to repeating it.
To those who think otherwise, I have some simple advice: Look away…look away.