Editorial: Of symbolic flags, the Dukes of Hazzard, Trump and the ugliness in Charlottesville

Blazoned across the front page of today’s Addison Independentare two pictures of Confederate flags flying in front of two homes that just happen to be in East Middlebury. The story focuses on the symbolism and potential message those flags convey, the pain and fear they strike in the hearts of some area residents, all of which is magnified by the events last Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The local display of two Confederate flags is a story today solely because of the Charlottesville melee, and the highly controversial, and widely condemned, comments by President Trump. And it should be noted clearly that in one instance the homeowner’s out-of-state son put the flag outside her house without her input, and that she was quick to take it down when asked, issuing ample apologies for any affront she may have caused. She appeared to handle the incident with grace, integrity and humility.
The other resident, Mr. Klimkowski, a New Jersey native who once lived in Georgia, has flown the flag at his house for the past year, and says he attaches no particular racist or white supremacist symbolism to it, but rather connects it to fond memories of growing up, watching the “Dukes of Hazzard” on television and being dubbed a “rebel” as a teen by his mother. Not that it’s all innocent, as he openly admits he also displays the flag in part because he wants to defy the political correctness of those who oppose its alt-right symbolism. He seizes on the principle of individual rights, maintaining he has a right to fly any flag he wants on his property and no one can tell him otherwise.
Both explanations should ease local fears. These are not voices of white supremacy, or Neo-Nazism.
Yet, there is much to learn from Mr. Klimkowski’s comments, which are often paraphrased by conservatives across the country who think they are standing up for the individual rights granted Americans.
“This is the United States of America,” he told our reporter in a face-to-face interview Wednesday afternoon. “You want to fly whatever flag you want, then go ahead… If people are offended or hurt, don’t look at it. Leave me be. I’m not doing anything. I’ve got a flag… I am not out to purposely hurt anyone.”
No argument, of course, that he has the right to fly whatever flag he wants to on his own property. It’s a free speech issue, and most of us would adamantly defend his Constitutional right to do so.
His blind spot, as with other conservatives on this issue, is not accepting that his actions are hurtful to others; that his actions incite fear and project hatred toward others.
As a political symbol today, the Confederate flag has come to project that message of hate and bigotry — all the more so because the alt-right has embraced it as their own. It is no longer the more-innocent icon of the Dukes of Hazzard, or a symbol of teenage rebellion. No, it harkens back to deep prejudices of white men ruling over black slaves, of the righteousness of inequality in a white man’s world. The Civil War was fought to reject those values, and to fly that flag is to insult all those who fought and died for the American ideals of individual freedom, equality and justice for all. Put in the context of the Charlottesville protests, that the alt-right protestors would chant in their torch-lit Friday night parade that “Jews will not replace us,” and replicate symbolism of the Ku Klux Klan, bring up images of past horrors that no American leader should ever countenance and links the Confederate flag to a level of unprecedented ugliness.
That’s why the alt-right’s violent message and conduct in Charlottesville was so shocking to much of America and the world. It’s why so many Americans — Republicans, Democrats, Independents and Progressives — are united in their condemnation of the alt-right’s march, the provocations of their message, and the hate and bigotry they espouse. It’s why America’s corporate leaders are rejecting Trump’s actions and abandoning his leadership.
It’s why Trump’s inability to tell right from wrong is so disturbing, and revealing.
It’s not that tough to cipher. The alt-right embraces an agenda that declares they are a superior race that should be entitled; its mission is to beat down those who are inferior and take the spoils for their own. In contrast, the counter-protestors’ objective was to respond to such hatred by standing up for themselves — not by putting others down, but to defend their own sense of honor, integrity and worth; and to defend the American values that the vast majority of Americans embrace. Yes, both groups engaged in violence at Charlottesville, but to consider them morally equivalent — as Trump did — you have to be morally bankrupt yourself.
The story in East Middlebury is of a vastly different magnitude. Yet symbols can become a form of hate speech, which when purposely displayed can be a hateful action that defines each of us in the context of our communities, our neighbors and friends. That said, tolerance and understanding of each other are small town blessings to bestow, made easier by the luxury of knowing individual motive.
Angelo Lynn

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