A few decades ago traveling carnivals, such as the Coastal Carolina Fair, were a very different kind of entertainment. Sure, there were the rides and games, the wonderful food, the bright lights and crowds.
It was all there, but there was something else. There were the "freak shows," featuring dwarfs and the two-headed calf, and the Tattooed Lady and the 600-Pound Man, and "More! More! More!" as the barker broadcast from the front of the tent.
And there was more, if you moved on to the next tent. I'm talking about the "hoochie-koochie" girls, who took their clothes off to entertain the swains, farmers, and mill hands in the heart of Jesus country.
Over the years, the freaks and the strippers were sent packing as traveling carnivals made themselves more family-friendly. But clearly there's still work to be done, as the recent spat over racist T-shirts at the Coastal Carolina Fair demonstrated.
To recap: A vendor was selling shirts featuring Confederate flags and the words, "Confederately Correct Civil Rights for Southern Whites." When Deanna Bernstein saw the T-shirts, her "stomach turned," she told the Post and Courier. She asked the vendor to remove the shirts from view, then requested fair officials to take action. Both refused, so Bernstein staged a one-woman protest at the entrance of the fair and was arrested for trespassing.
After the initial report, the P&C received an astonishing amount of hate mail and phone calls directed at Bernstein. Some of it was focused on the fact that she is from California and has a Jewish name. Bernstein also received hate mail, phone calls, and threats at her home.
One of the e-mails to the P&C was from a man who identified himself as commander of the American National Socialist Workers (Nazi) Party, who wrote, "The only tragedy in this case is that her count of trespassing doesn't carry a sentence of execution. Lynching her and burning her home in the manner of the Union armies she so loves would set a just example for the community."
What can we make of this T-shirt flap?
Chip Boling, president of the Coastal Carolina Fair, said that Bernstein was warned that no political demonstrations or activities were allowed on the fairgrounds. Bernstein was arrested when she refused to stop her protest. Boling somehow determined that the T-shirt in question, with references to race, history, and civil rights, was not a political statement, but Bernstein's protest was.
It is impossible for an aware and reasonable person to not find this T-shirt offensive. Assuming the shirt might have slipped the notice of Boling and his staff, Bernstein's complaint should have resulted in its prompt removal. The fact that Boling did not act says much about him.
The P&C featured Chip Boling in one of its High Profile stories on Oct. 28. He came across as an affable rube, a farmer by birth and career. His regular job is with the Clemson Extension service, where I would wager 99 percent of his colleagues and coworkers are white.
As a member of the Exchange Club — which he extolled for its "patriotism and Americanism" — Boling was tapped to head the Coastal Carolina Fair. He may be a great farmer, great patriot, and great American, but he clearly is not equipped to deal with the nuances of public policy in a multicultural fishbowl like the Coastal Carolina Fair. He has probably gotten away with this kind of crap down on the farm all his life and never thought twice about it, but he was in the spotlight at CCF and he blew it. Let's hope someone else is calling the shots at the fairgrounds next year.
How could an incident like this have happened in 2006?
Three days after Bernstein was arrested at the fairgrounds, America went to the polls. From coast to coast, voters replaced Republicans with Democrats in congressional and statehouse races. Even in Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida Democrats picked up a U.S. Senate seat and several House seats. But in South Carolina, not only did Republicans hold onto all their congressional seats; they increased their hold on statewide executive offices.
This violent, ill-tempered little state continues to live in fear of the future, of black people, of multiculturalism. The white majority lashes out at all three with their Confederate flag, their racist T-shirts, their angry letters to local newspapers. And they lash out with their lockstep subordination to the Republican Party. The GOP remains the White People's Party, a perfect index of this state's sublimated white supremacy. And as long as the Republicans keep their death grip on state politics and culture, we will continue to have embarrassments like the recent incident at the Coastal Carolina Fair.