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Commentary: A double standard when it comes to our heritage

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opinion Willmar, 56201

Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

SAN DIEGO -- As someone who writes often about immigration issues, I'm accustomed to hearing readers complain about those who insist on looking backward and obsessing over their heritage. They have little tolerance for those who seem intent on separating themselves from the rest of us by defiantly maintaining their culture and customs rather than blending into the mainstream. And they have even less patience with those who would dare wave a foreign flag in public -- especially if it happens to be the colors of a republic that was, just 150 years ago, literally at war with the United States.

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I have to agree. All of which leads me to ask: When exactly are Southerners going to assimilate?

Not anytime soon if Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell has anything to say about it. The governor recently issued a proclamation designating April as Confederate History Month. The tone was unmistakably reverential. McDonnell praised the Confederacy for fighting "for their homes and communities" and "for independence." It's pretty clear that McDonnell thinks that Virginians fought and died for an honorable cause.

What isn't so honorable is that McDonnell expunged language that recognized slavery as part of the Confederacy and condemned it. McDonnell explained his decision to drop that language -- put there by former Gov. James Gilmore III, a fellow Republican -- by saying that he had decided to focus on aspects of the Civil War that were "most significant for Virginia."

Governor, you might want to stop talking. What a lot of African-Americans, Civil War historians, and Americans with common sense thought most distressing about this episode was that the leader of a state that is 20 percent African-American considers slavery to be an insignificant aspect of the Civil War. After a few days of criticism and pressure, McDonnell admitted his mistake, issued an apology, and amended the proclamation to include a few words about slavery.

Still, even with this flap, many Americans think nothing of Southerners paying respects to the Confederacy as part of their heritage. That moment in time is something of which at least some people in the region are very proud. Their loyalty to the United States isn't questioned. When they display the Confederate flag, you don't hear anyone challenging their allegiance to the Stars and Stripes. They have a separate and distinctive culture, and it is part of what makes them unique and interesting. And you certainly don't hear people telling them to wipe away their uniqueness in order to blend into the mainstream.

Some folks aren't so lucky. Take Mexican immigrants, for example. Or even U.S.-born Mexican-Americans. They're continually suspected of having divided loyalties or being disloyal to the United States. To prove their allegiance and put others at ease, they're told to ignore their heritage, abandon their culture, forget their language, and become just like everyone else.

Some of the same people who shrug off the Confederate flag as a symbol of regional pride go ballistic when they catch a glimpse of the Mexican flag. Ironically, this seems to be especially true in the South where, because of changing demographics, the new racial and ethnic dynamic isn't just black and white but black and white and Latino.

Defenders of this double standard might try to rationalize this by insisting there is no comparison since the Mexican flag represents a foreign government.

Really? The Confederate States of America saw itself as a separate government with its own constitution, presidency, legislature and military. It traded with foreign countries and maintained diplomatic relations. And when one pledged allegiance to the confederacy, it necessarily meant opposing the United States.

Besides, part of the concern with those who display the Mexican flag is the worry that should the United States and Mexico wind up at loggerheads or even, in an unlikely event, go to war again as they did in the mid-19th century, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans would side with Mexico. Well, in the case of the Confederacy, we don't have to deal in the hypothetical. It did go to war with the United States, and most Southerners at the time did choose to side with the insurgency against the Union.

There ought to be one standard for everyone. I'd prefer to treat both of these as harmless displays of pride -- regional, cultural, national. But if we're going to get all worked up over one, we should at least try to be consistent and get just as worked up over the other.

Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is rnavarrette@wctrib.com.

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