Thursday, October 29, 2009

Pulling into the parking lot at Capital High School for my daughter Rosa’s sophomore volleyball game a few weeks ago, I was taken aback by a very dirty truck proudly flying a huge Confederate flag. While Rosa scurried off to join her Boise High teammates, I lingered outside, hoping to catch a glimpse of the vehicle’s owner. Eventually, I made my way to the gym—but not before scribbling a note, which I left on the windshield of the truck. I wrote: “To Whom It May Concern: I want you to know I was deeply saddened and disturbed by your Confederate flag. I wonder if you realize how much pain this symbol has brought to African-Americans. Having grown up in Virginia, I have seen that legacy of slavery, bigotry, and oppression first-hand. Perhaps you are not aware of how offensive this flag is; if that is the case, I hope you will now consider removing it.” At the bottom of the note, I left my name and telephone number.

After a hard-fought game, marked by fair play and excellent sportsmanship on both sides, Rosa and I returned home. I was in the middle of cooking dinner when the phone rang.

“Is this Dan?” the called asked.

“Yes. Can I help you?”

“You left a note on my boyfriend’s truck. Why did you do that?”

“I think I explained that in the note. I wanted to let you know that the Confederate flag is deeply hurtful to many people. I thought maybe you didn’t realize that it was a symbol of racism and hate when you decided to display it on your truck.”

“Well,” she exclaimed angrily, “we have free speech. And besides, it’s just American.”

And with that, she hung up.

Afterwards, I reflected on her words. The second half of her statement is just blatantly wrong; it is hard to imagine a symbol less American than a Confederate flag, which was the emblem of a nation that launched the bloodiest war against America in our history. But the free speech defense is more complicated.

I would not deny the truck owner’s legal right to display the flag—although not necessarily on school grounds, where free speech is often curtailed (most schools have dress codes prohibiting items such as gang-related clothing or obscene tee-shirts)

Our larger challenge, however, is to remember that not everything that is legal is moral. Much of what passes for free speech is crass, cruel, and counter-productive. We should not illegalize such expression—but we should certainly discourage it.

An old saying proclaims, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.” Jewish tradition argues otherwise. We believe that words have enormous power; after all, in the Torah’s account, God creates the world with words, proclaiming, “Let there be. . .” We, too, create the worlds we inhabit with the words and symbols we employ to express ourselves. Our right to free speech must be tempered by our responsibility to exercise that right with compassion and common sense. Flying a Confederate flag conjures up a world of anger, injustice and oppression. Surely humankind, created in God’s image, should aspire to higher worlds than that.


Anonymous said...

And her famous words, If I had know they would have cost me this much; I would do the work myself.

Unknown said...

I admire you for doing what you did. Usually, most people just walk away from this kind of verbal offenses, with many rational excuses about why we chose not to engage.And it may seem like you really could not get this woman to understand you, but may be something will change in her worldview. In my line of work - psychiatric nursing - I often feel I am talking to the wall and my words are falling on deaf ears - but sometimes one of these "deaf" will come back or I'll meet them on the street to discover that they where actually listening and it did made some difference in their lives. It is rare, but it does happen. Thank you for doing what you do.

Paulsky said...

I display a pirate flag prominently on the back of my car, although pirates undoubtedly killed and oppressed hundreds (if not thousands) of people. I suppose that if somebody came up to me and told me that her great-great-great-great-grandfather was killed by a pirate, I might reconsider, but so far that hasn't happened. And yes, I am descended from "private merchantmen" in the service of Sweden during the Thirty Years War.
The big difference between pirates and Confederates is that pirates were motivated by greed, and Confederates were motivated primarily by resistance to change, and secondarily by racism. Indeed, pirates were most often Equal Opportunity Employers. These are reasons why I would never display the Stars and Bars, but I would happily fly the Jolly Roger.
It used to be that flying the Jolly Roger was also in bad taste, but now displaying pirate symbols (or dressing like one for Purim) is all in good fun. Time has tempered the impact of such symbols, but we have also learned not to take them seriously.
Even though the Confederate flag is a very hateful symbol, we can choose how we respond to it. I don't get offended by it, I simply regard the bearer of the flag as at best ignorant, at worst stupid, and I chuckle in amusement at their folly.

dan said...

Good comments, all.

As Paulsky notes, there are differences between the Confederate flag and the pirate flag. Today, our images and ideas of pirates largely come from movies, where they are often the (romanticized) protagonists. This is a distortion of history, but it does no harm to any living groups of people, so far as I know.

For me, the Confederate flag is more like a swastika. It is, I think, difficult to not see it as a symbol of racism and white power. Yes, we choose how to respond to symbols, but we should also recognize them for what they are, and the intent of the person displaying them matters.

Betty: thanks for the kind words. I suspect you change more lives than you realize. Maybe it is not quite as rare as you might think.