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Jewish World Review Dec. 16, 1999 /7 Teves, 5760

George Will

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Star-Crossed Banner -- COLUMBIA, S.C.—This state has an aptitude for disgruntlement. It may have suffered more than any other state from the Civil War, but it deserved to, having done more than any other to ignite it. And even now, when it is a full participant in the prosperity of the country's southeast quadrant, it finds itself riven by an utterly optional argument.

While most Americans are too busy making money to wage culture wars, South Carolinians find time to be at daggers drawn with each other over a symbol. The issue is whether the Confederate battle flag should fly, as it has since 1962, over the state capitol.

That building is itself a battle flag--or perhaps a bloody shirt--in stone, its walls marked with wounds inflicted by Gen. Sherman's guns. Gov. Jim Hodges probably wishes the capitol were closed for refurbishment, as the governor's mansion is.

Hodges, a Democrat elected last year, knows a standoff when he is stuck smack in the middle of one. Tourism is the state's biggest industry, and the NAACP is urging a boycott of the state until the flag comes down. Pro-flag forces refuse to budge under the duress of the boycott.

A proposed compromise has been cobbled together with the help of some members of the state legislature's black caucus and three legislators who are members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. (The Adam's Mark hotel chain, which operates in 12 southern cities, has asked the Sons not to schedule more meetings at its facilities. When Alabama's chapter of the Sons met at an Adam's Mark hotel in Mobile, the profusion of Confederate flags so offended the hotel's largely black service staff that many called in sick and hotel executives had to make beds.) The compromise would be that the flag would be moved to a Confederate monument not yet built on the capitol grounds and the governor would press to make Martin Luther King's birthday a state holiday.

One reason the compromise is not working, yet, is that some Republicans believe, mistakenly, that they lost the governorship in 1998 because their incumbent, David Beasley, joined the run-it-down-the-flagpole side. But many of the most intense supporters of the flag as a symbol of a valorous heritage are rural and blue-collar Democrats. Many business-minded Republicans, whose most revered symbol is "$," think the flag is bad for business, so furl it.

Pro-flag people understandably worry that the anti-flag forces' appetite for cultural cleansing will only be whetted by victory at the capitol. Southern towns large enough to have Dairy Queens have Confederate monuments and street names, none of which would be safe. Why, the University of South Carolina might have to rename Longstreet Theater. (Considering Gen. Longstreet's sorry performance at Gettysburg, the Sons of Confederate Veterans might favor that renaming.)

But now come George Campsen Jr. and George "Chip" Campsen III, father and son, with a Solomonic solution. The father, now 70, was a legislator in 1962. He has polled surviving members of that legislature, who refute the accusation that the flag was put up as an act of segregationist defiance.

In 1957 Congress called upon states to commemorate the coming centennial of the Civil War, and in 1960 President Eisenhower urged that the commemorations continue for four years. The surviving legislators argue that the flag was put up for that honorable purpose. And they say it was supposed to fly only during the centennial--that it was a mere oversight that the legislation putting it up did not contain a date to take it down.

Chip Campsen, a Republican state legislator, says the argument has been framed improperly, forcing people to choose between preserving a heritage and extirpating racism. He wants what he calls a "paradigm shift," one confining the argument to the actual issue at hand:

"The universal and timeless criteria for a flag to fly over a capitol is that it must be the flag of an existing government that has jurisdiction over people inhabiting the state."

So, the flag can be removed from the capitol without conceding any imputation of racism, and the reason for removal cannot be used to attack other commemorations of the Confederacy. Will this bring an armistice to the flag fight?

This flag dispute has lasted longer than did the Confederacy, which amounted to a piddling 1.2 percent of the 33 decades of South Carolina history since some planters from Barbados helped get the colony up and running. Now the state has a way out of the dispute, but probably will not take it, such is the state's appetite for argument.

Comment on JWR contributor George Will's column by clicking here.


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