Fred Grimm

Rebel flag matters more to Congress than fighting Zika

Miami Beach residents, along with their allies, protest outside Miami Beach City Hall on Wednesday after the county announced it would start aerial spraying of the insecticide needed to reduce the number of Zika-carrying mosquitoes on the island.
Miami Beach residents, along with their allies, protest outside Miami Beach City Hall on Wednesday after the county announced it would start aerial spraying of the insecticide needed to reduce the number of Zika-carrying mosquitoes on the island. cjuste@miamiherald.com

Thank goodness the Old South still has some good ol’ boys in Congress who’ve got better things to do than kowtow to Miami hipsters.

These yahoos embrace priorities that trump petty concerns over the lack of federal Zika funding. Whiny residents of Wynwood and South Beach need to understand that there are more important issues at stake here than the threat of Zika-borne microcephaly and other severe fetal brain defects or the outbreak of Guillain-Barré syndrome in adults.

Never mind that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 671 pregnant women in the United States have already been infected with the Zika virus. With another 1,080 in the U.S. territories, most of them in Puerto Rico.

What matters here, certainly more than emergency allocations to fund research for a Zika vaccine and Zika virus detection kits and mosquito control, is protecting our beloved Confederate battle flag. (You know — the flag that Charleston mass murderer Dylann Roof featured in his selfies last year before he tried to foment a race war by killing nine parishioners in a historically black church.)

After those killings, Congress got into a big tussle over an amendment to an appropriations bill that would have banned the display of the Confederate flag at national cemeteries, with a few exceptions. The measure was “slipped into the bill in the dead of night,” complained U.S. Rep. Steven Palazzo, a Mississippi Republican, whose other moments of infamy came when he opposed naming a Navy ship after civil rights hero John Lewis and a North Carolina post office after acclaimed black poet Maya Angelou.

The redneck contingent in Congress (oblivious — or maybe not — to the white nationalist racism the flag has come to represent) was outraged at what those dastardly Yankees lawmakers were trying to do. “Congress cannot simply re-write history and strip the Confederate flag from existence,” Palazzo said in a statement issued by his office. “Members of Congress from New York and California cannot wipe away 150 years of southern history with sleight-of-hand tactics.”

Palazzo and his fellows were as good as their word. They managed to get the measure jettisoned during the Senate-House conference committee. But then the Department of Veterans Affairs, following the lead of the National Park Service, simply banned Confederate flags in VA cemeteries, with exceptions for small flags on individual graves. “In particular, we will amend our policy to make clear that Confederate flags will not be displayed from any permanently fixed flagpole in a national cemetery at any time,” wrote Ronald E. Walters, undersecretary for memorial affairs at the VA.

This bit of executive action drove the yokels to distraction. So they countered with their own sleight-of-hand tactics. First they tried to attach a rider to a funding bill for the Department of Interior designed to undo the VA and park-service flag bans. When that fizzled, they got downright mean and stuck the rider onto the emergency Zika funding bill.

Of course, the rebel flag provision was just one of several “poison pills” Republicans have attached to a Zika funding bill to make it unpalatable to Democrats. Another rider would loosen restrictions on pesticides — a sop that has a lot more to do with pleasing industry lobbyists than killing mosquitoes. Another add-on would keep Planned Parenthood from receiving any federal Zika funding. The irony here is that Planned Parenthood dispenses contraceptives, crucial in a public-health campaign against the virus, which can be sexually transmitted.

The goal is to make the bill so utterly stinky with riders that Democrats will vote no, so they can be painted as uncaring rats, more concerned about Planned Parenthood, environmental regulations and stomping on our grand southern heritage than heading off a Zika epidemic.

It’s as if congressional leadership regards the gruesome effects of Zika as faraway abstractions that have nothing to do with real Americans — just us no-account Floridians. With 652 people in the state affected by the virus, including 80 pregnant women, our health just doesn’t matter a whole hell of a lot to politicians obsessed with scoring points in Washington’s internecine warfare. Nor does South Florida’s tourist economy, crippled by Zika fears.

The only emergency the politicians consider worth addressing, apparently, has to do with keeping that Confederate battle flag flying in our national cemeteries. With all it symbolizes.

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