Sunday, June 28, 2015

No longer their nation

This Southern thing, it's as dead as Rockingham. As dead as Darlington on Labor Day weekend was for a time. As dead as North Wilkesboro, which is just down the road from Junior Johnson's place -- Junior Johnson, who turns 84 today and won 50 NASCAR races back when NASCAR was a bunch of gone-straight moonshiners makin' up for Gettysburg at the Rock and Wilkesboro and a pile of other vanished places.

Now it's 2015 and NASCAR's as hot as everyone else about the Confederate flag, and it must be some shock to the wild boys for whom the Stars and Bars was the official wallpaper of their sport. What the hell'd the Confederacy ever do to piss anybody off?

The answer to that has been obvious to most of the country for 150 years, but most of the country wasn't in thrall to the cult of Lost Cause/Southern remembrance. Its power to make irrational even the most rational of men has always been underestimated by those outside its sphere. But then nine black men and women died in a Southern church in an atrocity that took the country right back to four dead Sunday school girls and three civil rights workers buried in an earthen dam, and the scales finally fell from a whole lot of eyes -- not all of them belonging to damn Yankees.

Which is to say, this isn't 1863 anymore. It's not even 1963, no matter how resonant Dylann Roof's alleged slaughter and the wrapping it came in seemed to be.

That wrapping being the Confederate flag, among others.

A funeral procession of murdered African-Americans rolling past that flag proudly flying at full staff was too much for even the most oblivious, finally. And so South Carolina took it down and Alabama took it down and a bunch of others took it down, while the usual caterwauling rose up about political correctness and blah-blah-blah.

But it wasn't political correctness that moved those states to act. It was, finally, simple common decency, a belated awareness that to a whole segment of America whose ancestors got dragged here against their will and sold as property, flying the Confederate flag on official government ground was like salt in a wound that never heals. You might as well run a swastika up a pole outside the Knesset in Tel Aviv.  

And now NASCAR, bastion of Southern remembrance itself, has recognized that, too.

Its relationship with its Southern roots has been complicated for a long time, of course. As the sport exploded in the 1990s, all that yee-ha moonshiner business became an embarrassment, not to say a lousy sell to a rapidly expanding fan base. The prerogatives of the marketplace compelled the sport to flee those roots, figuratively as well as literally.

And so storied venues like Rockingham and North Wilkesboro went away so NASCAR could head to Phoenix and Vegas and the Napa valley. The Southern 500 at Darlington, once the second jewel in the NASCAR crown after Daytona, first vanished completely and then reappeared, but only eventually returned to its traditional Labor Day date.

And the Confederate flag, the Official Wallpaper, was Officially banished. And Brian France, who regards it as "personally offensive," now wants to erase it entirely in the wake of the Charleston shootings.

"That's what we're working on -- working on how far can we go," he said the other day. "If there's more we can do to disassociate ourselves with that flag at our events than we've already done, then we want to do it. We are going to be as aggressive as we can to disassociate ourselves with that flag."

The problem, of course, is how much more aggressive he can be without getting slapped around by the courts. The political correctness watchdogs, never ones to miss the train to Hysteria Junction, may be ranting that the goldang gummint will be coming for their guns next. But the fact is, no one's telling Billy Bob he can't hang 12 Confederate flags on his own property if he wants to. Even the President of the United States said so the other day in his moving eulogy to state senator and pastor Clementa Pinckney, one of the slain.

So it will be instructive to see how it plays if France tries to lean on NASCAR's venues to ban Confederate flags from the premises. The venues (or at least the ones NASCAR doesn't already own) aren't government facilities. They're privately owned. And even their reach is limited; will the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, for instance, ban Confederate flags from the Coke lot along 25th Street? And if it tries, how many stories will get churned out about violated freedom of expression and defiance in the face of tyranny -- because you know some in that crowd will unfurl the biggest Stars and Bars they can find, and dare someone to take it down.

After which one of two things will happen: The officials will just ignore it (the smart and likely move), or the cops will come. And then it will become a thing, and the right-wing media will have more red meat to gnaw on ... and, well, how far down that particular road does NASCAR really want to go?

We shall see. In the meantime, we'll give the last word on this to another NASCAR figure, a son of the South who was born and raised in North Carolina and has seen up close NASCAR's flight from its Southern roots.   

"It is offensive to an entire race," this individual said the other day about the former Official Wallpaper. "It really does nothing for anybody to be there flying. It belongs in the history books, and that's about it."

The person who said that?

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Most popular driver in NASCAR. Darling of the yee-ha crowd. Son of the quintessential Southern icon.

Welcome to modern times.

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