Display of the Confederate battle flag on clothing and vehicle bumpers - practices I encountered upon arriving in Central Florida a year and a half ago - is too easily laughed off as a kind of charming regionalism, I now realize.
Call me earnest. I suffer from a tendency to give others the benefit of the doubt, to be tolerant, essentially. A newcomer's intrigue at unfamiliar sights rarely seen in the New England states, where I had spent most of my life, played a role, too.
Of course, I knew of the pride/prejudice debate surrounding the flag. And thanks to the media, I had casually followed the many controversies the flag had provoked, particularly whether it should fly at South Carolina's state Capitol.
I found the flag distasteful, in truth, but there was something about the absurdity of the bumper stickers that softened its impact - at times even prompting a smile.
After having seen the flag next to witticisms such as "If the North Is So Much Better Go Home," "I Don't Care How You Did It Up North" and, my personal favorite, "Yankees 1, Rebels 0: Halftime Score," I found it ridiculous that my native latitudes appeared to have such a hold on folks a thousand miles distant and nearly 150 years after the Civil War.
Maybe, I thought to myself, these people with the bumper stickers think there is a comparable fixation with the South going on in say, Massachusetts, when, in fact, people there rarely gloat over having scored and tend not to anticipate a second half. (The recent Super Bowl notwithstanding.)
My failure to appreciate immediately how truly foul an act it is to display the Confederate flag was also due, in part, to conversations with people raised in the South, who insisted that for many, the flag really is about heritage and not hate.
Then a month ago, authorities say, Louis John Giannola, white and 19, walked into a Largo Wendy's and slipped a noose around the neck of 14-year-old Dionte Hall, who is black, on a $10 bet. Reportedly, Giannola, who has been charged with a hate crime, was boasting of his roots and love of the Old South just before the incident.
That did it. Any detached interest or amusement evaporated.
Now it's difficult for me to ignore the fact that the flag is a menace more than anything else, something appropriately fit for revulsion rather than sympathetic consideration.
For although the bulk of those who display the flag might never act so outrageously, and may, in many cases, condemn Giannola, the flag's undeniable associations confer an unspoken tolerance for a world view that fuels such crimes.
It would be too easy, and wrong, to charge lovers of the battle flag with ignorance, as some do. They know what they are doing - what message they are sending. There is little that is covert about it.
Nor is the flag benign, "just" a banner. Such images are potent. They shape thought and action.
Perhaps, in a bizarre way, the comedic quality to the bumper stickers that at times struck me makes the flag an even more objectionable social pollutant.
Undoubtedly, there are some lovers of Dixie who will take offense at my assertions and argue that I just don't understand them or their history. That can't be but expected or helped. And certainly, no area of the country has cornered the market on hate. Cross-racial violence in the North's urban centers is quite common. The history of race relations in Boston, for instance, is hardly a picture of harmonious progress.
However, public celebration of and identification with defenders of slavery is not taken in stride on those streets, as it often appears to be here.
I have no hope that those who champion the flag will disavow it. Obviously, it is too charged a symbol, too integral a part of some people's sense of self and, as is claimed, of their pride.
Such strongly held passions are not swiftly cooled.
For evidence of how entrenched a symbol the flag is and how wary criticism of it makes some folks, consider the case of 16-year-old Krista Abrams. Two weeks ago, Tarpons Springs High School administrators suspended Abrams for 10 days for circulating a petition calling for the flag to be banned from campus.
While I deeply admire Abrams' spirit, prohibition of the flag, whether by the courts or a student petition, is not wise. Freedom of expression does not allow such exceptions.
Laws might not be appropriate to curb the flag's display. But in the realm of manners, which are more important to our common welfare than often imagined, its display is vulgar and irresponsible - akin to relieving oneself in the common pool of our culture.
In an open society, people are free to celebrate their shamelessness and lack of fellow feeling, but it is expected that such acts will make good people ill. And it is expected such acts will not be ignored.