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White Guilt Won't Save the Bill of Rights : Sen. Moseley-Braun defeats the Confederacy, but who's taking up the cause of justice?

August 08, 1993|NAT HENTOFF | Nat Hentoff is a New York-based columnist who specializes in Bill of Rights issues.

The Oregon Legislature once enacted a law that barred from the state's public schools all American history textbooks that contained criticism of the Founding Fathers and those Americans who fought to preserve the Union. (There could be no mention, for example, that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves.) That sort of history was divisive. History should bring us together.

Listening to Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun (D-Ill.) squelch both Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and the United Daughters of the Confederacy last month, I thought of that Oregon law--long since deposited in the dustbin of runaway patriotism.

In trying to make offensive history disappear, Moseley-Braun so transfixed her colleagues by confronting them with her enslaved ancestors that the Senate reversed itself and denied a design patent--including the Confederate flag--to the United Daughters of the Confederacy. "The Confederate flag," the senator said, "is a symbol of division. We must put it behind us."

A New York Times editorial described Moseley-Braun's triumph as "majestic." Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), the Senate's most subtle intellectual, declared that in his 17 years in that not-always-majestic body, he had "not been so moved as by her statement."

Moseley-Braun, according to many of her colleagues, had sent a message to the American people. In one respect, the message is similar to the new orthodoxy on many college campuses. Not only offensive speech but offensive passages of history cannot be allowed to create a "hostile learning environment" for those students who do indeed find much of the past to be painful.

Moseley-Braun emphasized: "The issue is whether Americans such as myself who believe in the promise of this country . . . will have to suffer the indignity of being reminded time and time again that at one time in this country's history we were human chattel. We were property." She added that the Confederate flag "has no place in our modern times . . . no place in our history . . . no place in our society."

Does this mean that there should be a recall of books on slavery and on the Confederacy? And should the Public Broadcasting System's documentary on the Civil War not be shown in schools? It has Confederate flags, and through partial public funding, it has the imprimatur of Congress. Even if the Confederate flag were excised from these works, the rest of the material world would inescapably continue to be a reminder of slavery.

Rather than expunge all traces of such evil, might it not be more useful for whites and blacks to be reminded of it "time and time again"--as Jews and non-Jews keep going in large numbers to the Holocaust Museum?

In passing, the senator noted she was not urging that "these little old ladies" not be able to wave the Confederate flag. "It is absolutely unacceptable to me and to millions of Americans, black and white, that we would put the imprimatur of the United States Senate" on this flag.

So it is possible that books on slavery can stay as they are--for those who find it useful to be reminded of slavery--but anything offensive to millions of Americans must be denied a congressional imprimatur for its insignia.

Maybe a nonpartisan and multicultural committee could be set up to investigate which symbols--present and future--merit the approval of Congress.

The American Legion has enjoyed a design patent from Congress. Yet, in large parts of its history, that organization has greatly offended those Americans--admittedly not huge in number--who are devoted to the Constitution. The legion's resounding call for "100% Americanism" led it to ride shotgun for Sen. Joseph McCarthy in his hunt for subversive literature and readers.

It is illusory to think something has been accomplished by attacking design patents, even when there is a Confederate flag inside one of them.

Inspired by Moseley-Braun, the Senate has now indulged itself in a parade of white guilt, but will the senators do anything about mandatory minimum sentences and the Supreme Court's unrelenting subversion of habeas corpus ? Watch these feel-good senators when the votes come this fall for the annual festival of crime legislation that will again be so harsh as to be deeply offensive to the Bill of Rights. The victims of such legislation continue to be disproportionately black. They are alive--for the time being. They are not symbols. Their concern is not the Confederate flag. It is, of all things, justice. Which of these senatorial stompers on the Confederate flag will vote to bring them justice?

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