I drive an old Honda hybrid that gets little power on the road. But lately, I've been borrowing my husband's fancy Audi. It gets great power. It is amazing how differently I get treated on the road. No one ever bothered me as I puttered in the next lane in my Honda. But when I drive the fancy car, people yell at me and give me the finger when I pass them. Just having a fancier, more powerful car seems to make them mad.
There is something about cars that brings out people's rage. Maybe that's what was at the heart of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that came down last week.
On June 18, the court ruled that the state of Texas can refuse to issue a special license plate with the Confederate flag on it. The 5-4 decision came as a surprise only because Justice Clarence Thomas sided with Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsberg in ruling for Texas. I was more surprised that Texas fought the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which filed Walker v. Texas Division, in the first place.
We live in an age in which people and organizations seem to be able to buy the right to slap their name or logo on just about anything and governments and organizations seem willing to sell those rights at the right price.
I thought about that as I watched our Golden State Warriors win the NBA championship last week against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Quicken Loans Arena. If I didn't know better I'd have thought it was named after a check cashing business. Turns out Cleveland Cavaliers majority owner Dan Gilbert also owns the Quicken mortgage loan company. The San Francisco Giants play in AT&T Park. The Houston Astros play in Minute Maid Park. The FC Dallas soccer team plays in Toyota Park, which used to be Pizza Hut Park. The Corpus Christi Hooks minor league baseball team plays in Whataburger Field. The Colorado Rapids soccer team plays in Dick's Sporting Goods Park. I can't help wondering when we'll see teams play in the Ty-D-Bol.
Vehicle owners in Texas have the choice of 118 different license plate designs to choose from if they want to pay an extra 50 bucks. Those include specialty plates with backgrounds for Dr. Pepper, the Re/Max real estate company, two different ones for Ford Motor Co. and one for Mighty Fine Burgers. There are a host of organizations you can promote through your license plate including Ducks Unlimited, NASCAR and Young Lawyers.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans argued that having an organization's name or logo on a specialty plate doesn't mean the state of Texas endorses it. Texas argued that license plates are a form of government speech and, while the government can't restrict individual speech, individuals can't force government speech. Five of the justices agreed. So that means that by issuing specialty plates for $50 a pop, Texas officially wants you to drink Dr. Pepper with your Mighty Fine Burger in a Ford Tough truck while shopping for a new home with Re/Max.
I'm not sure how I feel about the Supreme Court decision. I've been increasingly uncomfortable with corporate advertising in public spaces. But I don't like agreeing with Clarence Thomas. And I don't like agreeing with decisions that seem to go against First Amendment freedom of speech rights.
In a column last summer, I argued that Humboldt State shouldn't be able to regulate what students post in their dorm rooms. If I lived in the dorm, I wrote, I'd rather know that the guy next door is the type to hang a Confederate flag in his window. If you think, as I do, that the Confederate flag in this day and age is a symbol of racism or at least sheer obliviousness to issues of race, then I say let's have all those people label themselves in public.
Don't you hate it when you are at a party or some event and you find yourself in a great a conversation with a really interesting man or woman only to find out that while you share the same love of movies and books, politically you are miles apart? Wouldn't it help if everyone who really thinks the Confederate flag should fly would publicly display it? Let's know where we each stand. We would know how far we have to go to get beyond racism or sexism in this country if the guy who wears a t-shirt that says "I hate black people" or "Misogyny Proud" has no trouble getting laid. Confederate flag license plates would give us another way to quantify racism or at least Texas politics. Would those with the flag plates get fewer parking or speeding tickets than the bearers of the Protect Wildlife plates? Would they get more broken windshields or slashed tires? We live in an age of Internet shaming. Would people take a picture of your car and Instagram it?
I think some of us are scared of a world in which people publicly fess up to politically or socially incorrect concepts. But I'd rather know. It's the secret racists, misogynists and anti-Semites who scare me. Had Dylann Roof been seen getting out of a car with a Confederate flag license plate before entering the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston on June 17, I think people would have been more guarded.
If I know where you stand I can deal with you. And if I find out that there are millions of you out there? Then I'll know I need to find a new place to live. But it just might be that if everyone outed themselves, they would find that they are smaller in number than anyone thought.
That's why I still believe in a marketplace of ideas. And it is why I don't like the idea of anonymous Internet posting. If you really believe something say it, write it and don't hide behind some fake name. Otherwise, when you give me the finger and yell at me out on the road, I'll just assume you are a racist, anti-Semitic woman hater. It certainly can't be because of the way I drive.
Marcy Burstiner is chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Humboldt State University.
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