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Flash, style, symbolism dominate politics

By Staff
April 1, 2001
Our state is all but drowning these days in battles over symbolism.
First, there's the scheduled April 17 special election to choose a state flag. The choice is between the 1894 state flag that incorporates the Confederate Battle Flag into the so-called "canton corner"   the flag that was inadvertently not adopted by the Mississippi Legislature in 1906 and a new flag designed last year by the State Flag Commission appointed by Gov. Ronnie Musgrove.
The new flag discards the Confederate battle flag from the proposed new "official" state flag, but the April 17 vote would grant historical status to the 1894 flag if the new design is adopted.
Musgrove's Flag Commission has drawn support from groups as diverse as the Mississippi Economic Council to Rev. Donald Wildmon's American Family Association and a number of prominent political, religious and media groups.
Pointed debate
On the other side, some ministers, many members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and others have rallied to defense of the "old flag." The debate between the two groups has been bitter, pointed and at times, racist.
But on the whole, the flag debate in Mississippi has been more civilized than most observers would have expected and clearly there is a significant number of Mississippians who could care less about either symbol.
Then there's the debate in the Legislature that ended last week over whether or not to allow abortion and other social issues to become part of the state's "affinity" license plate program.
Anti-abortion groups wanted the state to offer a car tag that bore the message "Choose Life." The Legislature, wisely I think, decided that license plates weren't the place for such debates and pointed to the fact that the U.S. Constitution would likely require any state that offered a license plate encouraging others to "Choose Life" would also be compelled by the First
Amendment to offer another license plate that allowed abortion proponents to decree "Choose Abortion" or "My Right is to Choose," etc.
How far?
How far are we to take this? Should we come out with a license plate supporting the death penalty that intones "Use The Needle!" or one opposing welfare payments that bore the message "Let Them Go Hungry."
The entire debate over "affinity" license plates for social issues is indicative of the current trend of political flash and style over any real substance in public policy debate in this state.
Then there's the feel-good legislation of the new century the "In God We Trust" bill that was signed into law last week by Musgrove. The bill required that every classroom in Mississippi have an 11 inch by 14 inch signed posted that reads: "In God We Trust."
Proponents of the measure claim the bill only posts the nation's motto as expressed on our money and that the postings will help put children in the "right frame of mind" as school begins each day. It's highly unlikely that the federal courts will allow this bill to stand.
The mind reels as to the reaction of local school districts should children of other faiths come to school and request the posting of a sign that reflects their faith. "In Buddha We Trust" isn't likely to grace a classroom wall anywhere in the state no matter the racial or ethnic makeup of the classroom.
Shaky ground
Most lawmakers know the "In God We Trust" bill is on shaky constitutional ground, but many of them voted far the bill out of fear of bring branded with
the vote in a re-election bid.
After the difficulties encountered last fall over "spontaneous" repetition of The Lord's Prayer at high school football games, there was for many legislators a seeming frustration over what is perceived by many Mississippians as the exclusion of any vestige of organized religion from the public schools.
Many of those same lawmakers believe that there exists a certain constitutional protection in the use of the "In God We Trust" motto in the public schools since the money in the pockets of the students enrolled in the school bears the same motto. But it seems certain that lawmakers have simply fired the first shot in a battle over symbolism that won't soon end  and that they taxpayers will fund.
As with all arguments over symbolism, it's difficult to forecast results. Both sides, flag defenders and flag changers, have engaged in a significant amount of hyperbole in predicting the results of either changing or not changing the flag.
Voting for change
But like everyone else, I have my opinions. As for me, I'm voting to change the state flag because I believe it to be the right thing to do and because I'm tired of extremists on both sides of the flag debate using the old flag to obscure the view of the real and tangible racial progress Mississippi has made and will continue to make.
As for me, the only thing I'm interested in my license plate communicating to the world at large is that I've paid my taxes for the privilege of owning and driving a car in this state.
I acceded to my daughter's request to express her love for Mississippi State on the tag on her car, but that's about as political as I think car tags should be.
As for me, I regret the exclusion of all things religious from the public schools. I'm old enough to remember when religion was included and that for some students, the exposure to religion that they received at school was the only exposure they received, period.
But feel-good legislation posting signs in classrooms isn't an exercise in religion. It's an exercise in the will of the political majority and it is a slippery constitutional slope.
Sid Salter is publisher/editor of the Scott County Times in Forest. E-mail him at salternews.aol.com.

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