April 2013

What's in a flag?

After a considerable uproar on the part of some parents, the Dolores school board last month rescinded a recently adopted rule intended to regulate what symbols and logos were appropriate to display on school property. It include the banning of symbols such as the swastika, the black power salute and the flag commonly known as the confederate flag.

As it happened, one student at the school drives a pickup with such a flag on the tailgate, and the new rule prohibited him from bringing it on campus (at least with the tailgate up), although he had not been involved in the incident that originally sparked the board’s action. During interviews with the press, his mother passionately defended her son against accusations of racism, declaring that to him the flag represented only rebellion and a desire to differentiate himself from the common herd.

We take her at her word and assume the young fellow has no racial intolerance toward any group and is, in fact, simply looking to express himself. Most teenagers seek some such means of defining themselves, whether through strikingly colored hair, unusual clothes, or language not used by their adult “oppressors.” And to tell them those kinds of ways of self-expression cannot be employed is like waving the red flag at young bulls.

However . . . .

The confederate flag has long been seen by many Americans as a distasteful reminder of the days when slavery prevailed in the South, when African- Americans were brought to this country in chains and sold to plantation owners for cheap labor. So it is understandable that many folks take umbrage with having this flag waved in their faces.

Still, the confederate flag has its defenders, who insist it doesn’t really stand for slavery or racism. They point out that what is commonly called the confederate flag never actually represented the shortlived Confederate States of America, but was a battle flag. They say it never flew over a slave ship, for instance, and that what it really represents is Southern culture and states’ rights. They say it shouldn’t be deemed offensive and the Dolores school board was wrong to ban its display.

But we disagree.

Even if the banner is viewed strictly as a battle flag, the logical question follows: What was the South fighting for? And part of the answer is: the right to retain slavery.

Setting aside the issue of possible racism, what other meanings does this banner carry? It is a reminder of the worst time in this nation’s history, when Americans fought Americans and hundreds of thousands died, leaving a wound in the country’s psyche that has never fully healed. The flag hearkens back to bloodied battlefields, dysentery, razed crops, burned buildings, and a faction that ultimately suffered a crushing defeat.

Yes, symbols can have a number of meanings. Take the swastika, the hated symbol of the Nazis. In traditional Hinduism, it represents elements of a full life. Would it be appropriate, then, for a student to wear one on his sleeve in school, proclaiming that to him it meant good fortune? We think not.

The “rebel” flag may be a sign of Southern heritage to some, but to many, many people, it symbolizes the oppression of an entire race. Displaying it is a right of adults under our First Amendment, but students in high school don’t enjoy all the rights of adults.

The Dolores board was within bounds in prohibiting the display of the flag along with the other symbols. In rescinding the ban, the board may have done a smart thing by taking the “forbidden” aspect out of the flag and defusing the whole issue, but we would have been content to see the prohibition left in place. Respect for others is an important lesson that deserves to be taught along with those other “Rs” the schools traditionally teach.