Nearly two years ago, in the weeks following a white nationalist gathering in Charlottesville, Va., the letters page of this newspaper was dominated by debate over the cause and meaning of the Civil War and the Confederate battle flag.
Earlier that year students at Ellsworth High School stirred controversy by flying Confederate flags from their trucks in the school parking lot.
Some see that flag as either a symbol of Southern pride and heritage or, more broadly, as a symbol of being from a rural area or of an independent, rebellious streak. Others say flying the flag is traitorous and racist.
The debate over the history and how we remember and tell it continues to be important. But the state has taken a step backwards by designating a new official state ballad in “The Boys from Maine” by Portland band The Ghost of Paul Revere. The song recounts the story of the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry regiment that fought at Gettysburg under General Joshua Chamberlain.
“Music transcends the bounds of time, distance, language and culture to bring people together,” Governor Janet Mills said Friday at the bill signing.
The song does bring people together. The chorus includes an exhortation to “Go straight to h*** with your rebel yell.” That’s the easiest, least productive way to bring people together — by joining together to insult an outside group.
Yes, the Confederate States of America was an enemy of the United States, which many of the boys from Maine died defending. But choosing to poke this particular blister, that gets so close to the heart of the bitter divisions in our state and nation, is inelegant at best.
Sean McCarthy, one of the members of Ghost of Paul Revere, claimed in the hearing on the bill that the song goes over well even in the South. “We’re all a part of the Union now,” he told lawmakers.
Surging sales of Confederate memorabilia — they spiked after the 2015 Charleston church shooting by a white supremacist — would suggest the reality is not so simple.
The adoption of a state ballad is probably not harmful in itself. The problem is that it has provided fuel for continued political sniping over the issue, sniping that poisons the well and makes reflection and learning nearly impossible. Already liberal websites are making fun of the legislators who expressed concern over the bill, calling them “pro-Confederate.” That derision will only make it more likely that we’ll continue to see Confederate flags around here for a long time to come.
Modern New Englanders congratulate ourselves for our states’ anti-slavery, but most Union soldiers were not fighting out of a commitment to racial equality. Maine would have racist laws for generations after the Civil War and even our most famous “Christian general” Oliver Howard would go on to slaughter native people in the West.
The United States has never undertaken the needed work, that was done in Germany after the Holocaust, to learn how to honor our ancestors while also disavowing their crimes of African slavery and the murder of native peoples. The advent of Maine’s bicentennial year is a good time to dig into our history and reflect on how best to carry it with us. Hint: it shouldn’t involve telling anyone to go to h***.