Remove the flag

Three months ago I was vacationing on the coast of my home state, enjoying one of the simple yet too-often-overlooked pleasures of living in South Carolina--its bucolic, bountiful, accessible beaches.

My first stop was in Charleston, which--let’s face it--is my state’s crown jewel. Its residents certainly breathe rarified air, but they come by it honestly. There’s a kind of buoyant magic in that city, and when you’re there you can’t decide whether you’re moving backward or forward in time.

I’ve walked the streets of London, Paris, Los Angeles, New York and New Orleans, and Charleston is at least as wondrous a city as any of those.

My second stop was in Pawleys Island, close to my hometown. It is no Charleston. It’s not even a Beaufort. But it is quaint, quiet and disarming, and whenever I go there, I’m reminded that I took it for granted as a child.

The food there alone is reason enough for monuments and jubilation--golden fried chicken; seafood so fresh you can taste your flounder’s last meal; and true pulled-pork barbecue that renders any other regional definition of the dish irrelevant. Other than eat myself into a stupor, I didn’t do much else during my visit other than sit on the sand and dream.

I came back at the end of a long weekend to my home in South Carolina’s drab and sweltering capital city, Columbia, which for all of its faults has a way of growing on you, like a homely little bunion.

The capital is charming in its way, and full of character. The cost of living is low, absurdly so. The folks are well-meaning and friendly, and the city is familiar and comforting--one great big greasy tub of french fries. And Columbia’s much-maligned nightlife actually rivals any other city of its size, simply because it’s a college town. The clubs stay open as long as they like, meaning the party never really stops.

People who don’t live here don’t understand that. Ask Michael Phelps.

I’ve never put down in writing all these tiny riches that my home state has to offer. Frankly, they seem insignificant and shallow when you consider the Palmetto State’s pathetic lot in life: mired in poverty, morbidly obese, constantly looking backward, and ever confined to the bottom tier of even the Southern states.

Not that we could ever blame outsiders for thinking ill of us.

Take this week’s story that, yet again, landed hapless South Carolina in the national news for all the wrong reasons, this time after two county Republican Party chairmen were accused of promoting anti-Semitism in an op-ed piece.

This story, of course, comes only a few months after another county GOP activist noted on Facebook that a gorilla that escaped from the Columbia zoo was probably an ancestor of first lady Michelle Obama.

These stories reinforce a stereotype, but ironically it’s not one that relates to those of the Jewish faith or to African-Americans. Rather, it’s a stereotype that portrays the GOP as racist, out of touch, desperate and terrifying.

But more to the point, these stories also make me wonder: Why, at the close of 2009, does South Carolina seem destined to remain stuck in 1809?

Barbecue and beaches aside, things haven’t been so great for our state the past century and a half, and not just when it comes to college football. It’s high time for all good South Carolinians to own up to that. The last thing the state needs is a gaggle of idiot politicians who claim to represent her interests but, in reality, end up thwarting her progress at every turn.

Worse, ours is an arrogant state in spite of its troubles, bent on immutability with a vehemence that would border on admirable, if it weren’t so misguided. I’m far less concerned about whose tan lines Gov. Mark Sanford is ogling, and far more upset that he tried to prevent one of the poorest states in the nation from receiving desperately needed federal stimulus money.

I couldn’t care less whose Appalachian Trail he’s exploring, but I’m immensely angry at his nerve for abandoning his post and leaving Andre "Fast and Furious" Bauer in charge.

It’s no secret that Sanford is South Carolina’s least effective leader. Amazingly, though, he’s also one of the least offensive, relatively speaking.

I live in a state whose junior U.S. senator wants to “break” the president of the United States by defeating a plan to insure the poor. It is Jim DeMint’s raison d’etre, and killing universal health care would actually be the great honor of his life. People cheer him on for this.

I live in a state whose congressional representative yells at the leader of the free world during a televised address to the nation. Joe Wilson thinks President Obama is lying to him, so he doesn’t particularly feel like listening respectfully to the president’s address. Boy, can I empathize. I should have been so lucky for the past eight years.

I also live in a state in which--as Los Angeles Times reporter Mark Barabak reminded me in his latest piece--the treasurer was indicted on cocaine charges, the agriculture commissioner had ties to a cockfighting ring and the state Board of Education chief stepped down amid allegations that she wrote erotic fiction and posted it online.


And these are merely our politicians of the modern era; we haven’t even scratched the surface of South Carolina’s long and checkered policymaking past. Our most prominent figure on the national stage, the late and much-beloved Sen. Strom Thurmond, once held the record as the longest-serving U.S. senator.

He also holds the record for the longest filibuster in U.S. Senate history--for his attempt to block civil rights legislation.

Of course, that didn’t stop Thurmond from secretly fathering a child with a black maid.

The truth is, for all of South Carolina's hidden inner beauty -- for all its charm, talent and decent qualities -- there’s also no escaping one glaring and ugly truth.

The truth is, I live in a former slave state that was the first to secede from the Union and is one of the last to have a Confederate battle flag flying next to its State House.

In that context, what kind of politicians could I honestly be expecting this state to produce?

It saddens me deeply.

I don’t have the balm that will cure South Carolina’s ills. I don’t know how to remove her from late-night comics’ monologues--although Stephen Colbert, indisputably our finest export, should have carte blanche.

I don’t pretend to have the blueprint for raising our state up out of the muck and restoring her to glory, and even if I did, state Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell would surely sue me for Hunley copyright infringement.

But I do have an idea for a practical first step. Call it a good-faith investment in helping South Carolina begin the long and arduous climb out of the primordial slop toward terra firma. It goes like this:

At long, long last, take down that goddamn rebel flag.

It does not belong anywhere near a lawmaking body. It doesn’t belong anywhere near my body. It is a symbol of hate, and the only thing it has promoted here is a stunted and recalcitrant state--economically, socially and morally.

If ever South Carolina wants to start healing; if ever we want commerce to truly flourish here; if ever we wish to start building up our future leaders instead of placating the same ancient, crusty and possibly insane white males who now hold sway, then it’s long past time for the Palmetto State to start walking upright.

May the crawling commence.

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