ATLANTA -- Like the drunk who runs into the very thing he's trying to miss, the South keeps tangling with the Confederate battle flag.
Now even border states are doing it. Maryland has recalled the 70-some specialty license plates it had issued for the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The plate featured the Confederate battle flag, to the instant outrage of many white citizens as well as black. State officials profess surprise at the reaction.
Why surprise? Except when it's in a historic setting, no other symbol so surely inflames the nation's racial rancors.
Mississippi still flies a state flag that incorporated the design during the state's turn-of-the-century enactment of segregation laws. Georgia adopted a battle-flag design in the mid-1950s as part of its resistance to desegregation. Alabama and South Carolina took to flying Confederate flags over their statehouses in the '60s, ensigns of their defiance of the Constitution.
Now, on the edge of the 21st century, and going on 140 years after the South was slam-dunked in the Civil War, South Carolina's governor faces a major fight with an uncertain outcome as he tries to get the legislature to strike the embarrassing banner. Georgia's governor pranged in 1993 on a similar quest.
A scruffy ragtag
No, the much-touted New South isn't being run off by a revival of the old. There's no lynching chic and all that's left of the Ku Klux Klan is a scruffy ragtag haunting your more declasse trailer parks.
But the region is suffering a bout of racism-tinged nostalgia. Consider the mini-revival of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Once down to a scatteration of 6,000 members, the group at last report was at 24,000 and rising.
In the Maryland flap, it fobbed itself off as a sponsor of ''true American history.'' A member speaks wistfully of his ancestors having given ''their bounty, home and lives in the great cause.'' A commander of the Georgia chapter laments that Confederate soldiers were ''the only Americans to . . . witness the destruction of their country.''
Somebody needs to sit these boys down and talk sense to them. Their ancestors were the ones trying to destroy the country. There was no great cause, unless you count treason. The South didn't start the war to preserve ''values.'' It fought to save slavery. Sure there were acts of great valor performed in the service of the Confederacy, but bravery on behalf of wrong-headedness doesn't redeem the error. The error just makes the bravery ironic.
The Civil War was the South's worst idea and worst four years, but the Sons, who swear they don't have a racist bone, fight to keep the battle flag flying, to the chagrin of other white Southerners who know better and in the face of black Southerners who keep telling the group they are offended by it.
The Sons revived a Confederate Memorial Day march that been defunct for 40 years in Marietta, Georgia. In Alabama, they are promoting recognition of an all-but-forgotten Jefferson Davis Highway. They demand prominent restoration of memorials discreetly removed to cemeteries years ago.
Is damn foolishness a recessive gene?
Tom Teepen is a columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.