A license to promote ignorance

By Daniel Ruth, Times correspondent
Friday, December 11, 2009

This is just swell. Just perfect.

Florida routinely ranks somewhere between Dogpatch and Haiti when it comes to our educational system, and now a drool of rednecks may well win the opportunity to officially advertise the state’s ignorance on yet another specialty license plate. Yee-haw!

A few days ago a federal judge — and by the way, irony abounds here — ruled in favor of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, allowing the group to pursue a lawsuit against the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles to permit a "Slavery! It’s a Pip!" specialty license plate.

The Sons of a Parallel Universe sought relief in the courts to have their "Slavery! Yes!" specialty plate after the Florida Legislature refused over the past two years to consider approving the application, motivated perhaps by the idea that it is probably not a good idea when you are trying to attract investment and tourism to be seen as promoting a racist symbol of oppression and violence.

Sheesh! This would be a bit like a Cherokee Indian reservation having an Andrew Jackson-Trail of Tears specialty plate imposed on them.

To get a plate approved a $60,000 fee has to be paid and at least 30,000 Floridians would have to agree to buy the cockamamie thing. Do you get the feeling this involved more Xs than a William Faulkner Snopes family reunion?

At any rate, the Sons of Deliverance claim they met that standard and yet the Legislature declined to conduct a hearing, marking one of the rare moments in Tallahassee history when indifference, apathy and fecklessness actually paid off.

The Son’s of Foghorn Leghorn have insisted the failure of the Legislature to approve their "Slavery! Zippity-Doo-Dah!" license plate infringes upon the group’s First Amendment free speech rights which, of course, is sheer piffle.

Anyone who has traversed the byways of our fair state has been exposed to the ubiquitous displays of the Confederate flag in the back windows and bumpers of all manner of vehicles, proving once again that the First Amendment more than guarantees the constitutional right to make a complete buffo of oneself in public. Flap away. Have a nice time.

But simply because some yahoo wants to advertise the fact he or she possesses all the historical literacy of kudzu, doesn’t mean the state of Florida should formally aid and abet the promotion of ignorance.

If these faux patriots want to run around in the woods in their little uniforms, re-enacting battles, well then go forth and pretend away. Maybe Appomattox will work out better for them in 2009.

Meanwhile, the Sons of Ashley Wilkes can sip their juleps and blather on as how the Confederate flag is really all about "heritage," "honor," "legacy" and "freedom." Oh, really?

Most historians peg the number of human beings held as slaves in the South at the beginning of the Civil War at around 4 million. Where was their "liberty," their "freedom"? Indeed, the economy of the South was highly dependent on maintaining this unique "means of production." Some "heritage."

As well, Jefferson Davis’ vice president, Alexander Stephens, insisted slavery served as a cornerstone of the Confederacy. And now this deserves a license plate?

For vast numbers of African-Americans, the Confederate flag hardly represents honor, or freedom, or the better angels of the nation’s ideals. It is, in a word, offensive. In another word, it is scary.

For too long, the Sons of Confederate Veterans have managed to bully officeholders into buying into their cornpone propaganda that the Civil War was some sort of noble defense of "liberty," banking on the idea perhaps that: a) most pols are too gutless to stand up to their perceived political clout and/or b) when it comes to history most people are dumber than a sack of Pickett’s Charges.

At the moment, there are 114 specialty license plates. Of that number, only two — the Choose Life plate and an In God We Trust plate — might be considered controversial. The other 112 plates endorse various universities, sports teams and subjects such as the environment, or protecting children, or the wonders of golf.

None of the plates hype an institution, or a treasonous government, that sought to maintain the enslavement of people. What’s next? A "Springtime For Hitler" plate?

The Sons of Dueling Banjos will have a hard time justifying why so much as a dime in public monies should be expended to support not only a specialty plate displaying a patently repellent symbol of bigotry, but a license plate also predicated on grotesquely perverted revisionist history.

But here’s a compromise. The Florida Legislature could go ahead and approve the Sons of Gomer Pyle their historically dubious license plate — with all proceeds going to the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Foundation.

It’s just a thought.

© 2009 · St. Petersburg Times

On The Web:   http://www.tampabay.com/opinion/columns/a-license-to-promote-ignorance/1057909


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