Last week, there were two major victories over intolerance: the South Carolina legislature voted to remove the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds and a federal court upheld a decision by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Trial and Appeal Board canceling the Washington Redskins’ protection on six trademarks. I applaud both decisions conceptually but my feelings on these two decisions differ vastly in practice.
The Confederate flag was removed because of its racist undertones (or, perhaps, overtones). Defenders of the flag called it a symbol of Southern pride, but the flag is inextricably tied to an ideology that supported slavery. Imagine, if you will, the Nazi flag. (This is called Godwin’s Law: any conversation on the internet, if it goes on long enough, will ultimately lead to a comparison with Hitler and/or Nazis. We’ve gotten it out of the way early here.) If a German citizen were to display the swastika, calling it a symbol of German pride, Jews would understandably bristle. True, World War II was not about the Holocaust, but it’s so part-and-parcel that the symbol is perpetually tainted. Similarly, the Civil War may not have been about slavery per se, but the Confederate flag’s association with slavery renders it unsuitable for display on public property.
The Washington Redskins’ name and logo have long been criticized as perpetuating racist stereotypes. The decision to remove their trademark protection doesn’t prohibit the organization from using the name and the logo, but it does hit them in the wallet, since they have no recourse should others choose to produce knock-off merchandise. This provides a financial incentive to change the team name and logo to something less offensive, which would merit trademark protection.
While I unequivocally support the decision to remove the Confederate flag, my view on the Redskins case is far more complicated. Don’t get me wrong; regular readers know that racism is one of my hot-button issues. I think the Redskins’ logo is perfectly reprehensible. I think they should be smart enough to change the team’s name and I would support a boycott to persuade them to do so. I just don’t think that the government should swoop in and cancel approved trademark protection because they’ve retroactively decided it was offensive. If the trademark was approved from 1967 to 1990, it should stand and not be approved at its next registration.
This is a matter of free speech: people have the right to say things that are stupid and/or offensive. Let the Redskins do as they wish and let public opinion decide whether or not it’s a good decision. This is a matter of, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” (This statement was popularly attributed to Voltaire but is really by Beatrice Evelyn Hall, writing as S. G. Tallentyre.)
First amendment rights are vitally important, especially to us as Jews. We are guaranteed not only freedom of speech but also free expression of religion. This is crucial for our continued existence, as 40 percent of the world’s Jews live in the United States, but we are only 2 percent of the US population. If not for our right to offend others’ sensibilities—such as by rejecting the messiah historically accepted by the overwhelming majority of our country—we would have been legislated out of being long ago.
Even today, in our multicultural, post-modern society, we have to struggle to survive with our religion intact. There are those who want to ban circumcision. There are those who want to ban the ritual slaughter necessary for kosher meat. There are those who wish to ban kapparos (though, admittedly, there is room for kapporos reform). We need our right to do things that others find offensive. In return, we have to allow others the right to do things that offend us, whether it’s Nazis marching in Skokie, the Westboro Baptist Church protesting at funerals, or the Washington Redskins being generally offensive. We should definitely protest these things but I don’t believe we should approve of the government shutting them down because the next thing you know, those tables will turn on us.
So why do I support the removal of the Confederate flag? Because it has no place flying over a state capitol. But I would object to a total government ban on the Confederate flag. If people want to put it on their cars or whatever, they should still have that prerogative, even if we find it shameful.
Some stores have banned merchandise with Confederate flags on them. Good on them, I say! Some TV stations have removed The Dukes of Hazzard from their schedules because the General Lee (a car) has the Confederate flag on the roof. To me, personally, this goes too far (for example, I would expect to see swastikas in Hogan’s Heroes) but that’s a business decision; the government didn’t force them.
I object to hate. I object to stupidity. But I defend the right to be hateful and stupid. I have to because some people think we’re the hateful and stupid ones.
Author’s note: In this article, I only speak on my own behalf; not intended to reflect the position of the OU or anyone else on the Confederate flag or the Washington Redskins. My willingness to defend hate and stupidity does not extend to inciting violence.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.