Newspapers around the country will have reported this morning on yesterday's Tax Day protests, which, while (mercifully) smaller than Tea Party-related demonstrations last summer, still totaled hundreds of demonstrations across the country. Tax policy is controversial because people disagree about what government should fund. That is legitimate, even if I strongly disagree with many of the priorities and arguments Tax Party activists advocate. However: I was struck, once again, by the blindness that characterizes some of these protesters' understanding of the past, even as they call upon the "Founders" and upon history to bolster their arguments.
Outside the stereotypically lefty-loony Portland metro area, bless 'em, Oregonians tend to have a strong libertarian streak. How strong, I did not fully appreciate until I moved outside the cozy confines of Multnomah County. (Sigh.) Therefore, we do tax protests with panache... and, in the case of one woman interviewed in today's issue of the Oregonian, Confederate-themed sportswear. Her comment came as an aside in the reporter's description of a crowd of about 1,000 protesters in front of the Oregon State Capitol Building in Salem. The assembled throng waved flags, including the "Don't Tread on Me" of revolutionary lore... and one woman "came dressed in a Confederate flag vest." Asked if she didn't consider it a tad offensive, she replied "Oh, I hope not" -- words that seemed to indicate surprise that anyone could possibly have come up with that idea in the first place.
On one level, it is understandable that Confederate symbols would be used in a protest movement. The Confederate States were, after all, the ultimate rebels against federal authority. But, and this is a very big but, they were rebelling to support their institution of slavery. Chattel slavery. The ultimate form of human oppression. Secession had NOTHING to do with tax policy (although they weren't big on the taxes of the day, seeing as how most taxes were tariffs designed to protect northern industries and could hurt raw materials exports). If political conservatives fail to see why they do not attract more African American support, they might start here.
The unthinking adoption of Confederate regalia is just one sign of the historical myopia that characterizes so much of American political protest. These people claim to be fighting for freedom and liberty -- fighting for their rights as citizens. They would do well to remember that the abrogation of rights symbolized in that Confederate flag is something we are still fighting to eliminate 150 years on.
I had the opportunity to visit the Smithsonian Museum of American History for a couple hours while I was in Washington, D.C., and viewed one of the newest additions to the museum's collection:
These four stools supported the North Carolina A & T students who decided, one day in the winter of 1960, that they were no longer able to suffer their position as second-class citizens in this "free" country of ours. They sat for weeks at the Woolworth's counter in Greensboro, enduring physical and verbal assaults and a veritable avalanche of condiments. (I must admit that my first thought upon seeing them was "man, someone had to scrub a long time to get those seats clean.") They eventually won their battle -- one of many that have characterized the long history of the civil rights movement before and since. Their protest was nonviolent, it was just, and it brought to national attention the legacy of Jim Crow that sprang from the years following the end of Reconstruction.
The Confederacy was not a "Lost Cause" -- it was the wrong cause. That does not make southerners evil. Some of my own ancestors were secessionists. But it does NOT symbolize a legacy that we should find instructive today, regardless of our political affiliation.