Even with an RV, there’s no escape from the outside world

52

By Andy Zipser
OWNER
WALNUT HILLS CAMPGROUND & RV PARK

M

idway through our eighth season as campground owners, I still get surprised by the many ways in which our little microcosm absorbs larger social issues and conflicts. From most campers’ perspectives, a campground is an opportunity to get away from the larger world and the numbing routine of everyday life — yet in making that escape, many campers haul all that baggage along with them. The result is that what should be an oasis from a fractious world instead ends up reflecting it.

Several years ago, we began participating in the state department’s J-1 visa program, through which foreign students can spend their summers in the U.S., working seasonal jobs and getting a taste of American culture. Our first two students were from Germany: studious, prolific in English, intensely interested in American politics. Why, they wanted to know, were the monthly campers in the site next to theirs allowed to fly a Confederate battle flag — along with the American and Marine Corps flags? How did that even make sense, to display a flag of treason in that context?

I replied with a short lecture about symbolic speech, freedom of speech and how a significant proportion of the American public regards the stars and bars as a symbol of “heritage, not hate.” And, hell, we’re in Virginia.

That was the summer of 2017. Just a few weeks later, Heather Heyer was killed and nearly three dozen others injured as they protested a white supremacist demonstration in Charlottesville, just a short ride over the Blue Ridge from us. Our German students, looking at television coverage of men with swastika armbands and lit torches, were doubly aghast. That such a confrontation could occur in a town most closely associated with Thomas Jefferson was hard enough to grasp; that it would embrace the darkest imagery of their own nation’s history was beyond comprehension.

Could they, they tentatively asked, fly flags of their own choosing? And so it was that the cranky old Marine sergeant with his beloved Confederate flag found himself living next to a trailer that flew a Black Lives Matter standard. And then, just for good measure, a rainbow LBGT flag. Free speech, after all, cuts both ways.

FAST FORWARD THREE YEARS and the same issue persists, but on a grander and more intense scale. Three years later we still have campers who prominently fly the Confederate flag. Our family has had many discussions about banning such displays on our property, but invariably founder on the shoals of free speech and the logistical complexity of enforcing such an edict. Should we just ban all flags, to avoid getting into arguments about selective discrimination? How about the U.S. flag? What about our Good Sam flag? If we ban just Confederate symbols, what do we do about Confederate flag decals on car bumpers? Embroidered on T-shirts?

We’re not the only ones struggling with these questions, but there is little to no discussion on these and similar issues within the industry — we’re all on our own. The National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds steers clear of anything that smacks of political and social controversy (it still maintains a 20-year-old policy that questions global warming as a thing) and has nothing at all to say about the flag issue.

KOA, the nation’s largest campground franchiser, recently adopted a policy on the matter but did so without any comprehensive consultation with its franchisees, even as it makes them responsible for enforcing it.

To its credit, KOA hit all the right notes — it’s just been exceedingly modest about doing so. There has been no public announcement, no press release: The policy simply was slipped into an obscure corner of the company’s website which, with some diligence, you might actually find. If you do, you’ll read that symbols that have the effect of “harassing, demeaning, intimidating or disparaging any legally protected minority” negate the company’s goal of “providing a safe and welcoming environment for all of its guests” and employees. It therefore “bans the display of the Confederate battle flag symbol by KOA owners, staff, campers and any other members of the public” and also prohibits the sale of the Confederate flag symbol at its campgrounds.

GUESTS OR OTHER MEMBERS of the public violating the policy will be asked to immediately “remove or cover” the flag, on pain of eviction. Nothing in the policy addresses the campground owner who ignores it — or, worse, who may actually support displays of the flag.

KOA’s franchisees are as varied as the rest of the American public, including not just those imbued with reverence for the Confederate past but those who view their campgrounds as catering to a public drawn to nearby Confederate forts, prisons, museums, battlefields or other memorials. So for some franchisees, KOA’s policy risks becoming a wedge issue that reflects the nation’s overall polarization. For others, the policy means a possible loss of revenue from merchandise sales, the heightened risk of heated confrontations, and the alienation of a substantial customer base.

The world looks very different in politically conservative Georgia, with its Dixie roots, than it does in politically conservative Billings, Montana, where KOA is headquartered. Here at Walnut Hills in Virginia, we continue to dither — for all of the reasons outlined above.

I like to think that we’re defending the First Amendment right to voice even repugnant views. I tell myself we’re picking our battles — and that it’s hard enough to get our campers to wear face masks in our store without also telling them to change their shirts or put tape over that decal in their truck window.

But I also wonder if I’d react the same way if someone raised a Nazi swastika flag over their camper.

Your brief comments are welcome as long as they are intelligent and respectful. Others will be deleted immediately.

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52 Comments
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Doug
11 days ago

Those offended by flags need to get over themselves. Stop taking yourself so seriously, I don’t. Better to get a sense of humor and learn to laugh at stuff like this.

Gordy
21 days ago

I was born and raised in Michigan. THE Confederate soldiers were called Rebels, the flag (to me) was a sign of rebellion and being rebellious (in my teens and twenties) I had a front licence plate of the Confederate flag. It (to me) had nothing to do with war or slavery, it only meant I was rebellious. My friends (all colors including black) took no offense because they knew what I was saying. As I grew older it just faded from my disposition into memory of my youth. As far as banning flags other than the Stars and Stripes, if you ban one you must ban them all or face discrimination charges.

John Revels
23 days ago

After reading this it sounds like you are not allowed to fly the Confederate Flag in KOA parks because it may be offensive! Does that mean that other offensive flags are also banned, like the gay flag and the **** ***** flag of BLM?

Oscar
20 days ago
Reply to  John Revels

Wow. I thought offensive comments were going to be deleted? Even bleeped out, that BLM comment seems over the line.

Scott Gitlin
23 days ago

How about displaying the skull and crossbones? Aye, me hearties. We pull alongside this RV to loot and plunder!

Scott R. Ellis
23 days ago

That decision by KOA never made the local news here in politically conservative Billings. I’m frankly kind of surprised it was made.

James Beirlein
23 days ago

Good rule to live by. It’s OK to disagree, just don’t be disagreeable.

Cindy
24 days ago

In America you are still allowed to hoist a Nazi flag because it is freedom of speech. You don’t have to agree with it or endorse it. People who disagree will have their own flags. I think freedom, as you say, cuts both ways. Right now the cancel culture is telling us we can’t disagree, that we can only say what agrees with some people. I’m not a Nazi, but I will agree they have the right to display their feelings. Then I will logically discuss it with them and use facts to tear it to pieces – if they will listen and not cancel me. I have people from my own family who will not speak with me because of who I voted for in the last election. That’s ridiculous. You don’t have to agree with me, but you should be able to display civility. That’s what Democracy is all about.

Oscar
20 days ago
Reply to  Cindy

“Freedom of speech” is guaranteed by the government, not a private business. The one has nothing to do with the other.

tim palmer
24 days ago

If you really want to fly a flag, here is a suggestion, fly your state flag over your campsite.
That just may open up a whole new world as a lot of state flags have their state tree, state bird, or other “state” things they proudly admire.
Nice conversation starters they would be.

Eric Ramey
24 days ago
Reply to  tim palmer

Awesome Idea!

Marvin
24 days ago

I echo your appreciation of the J-1 students. We worked the last two summers in a high-traffic national park. I was a retail manager with twenty employees, half of whom were J-1. I have had people from Taiwan, Japan, The Philippines, Czech Republic, Poland, Russia, The Ukraine, Spain, etc.

Their work ethic is impeccable, their studious nature inspiring. For some, this was their first job of any kind. One young man, from the Czech Republic, spent his first six or seven days off at a local Public Library researching the area and local history so he could better help customers. Several of my employees would bring me, once or twice a week, a list of words they didn’t understand, and we’d sit down and look up the translations together.

We had a number of beer-assisted late night sessions where we discussed politics and social issues. I learned a lot about my own country while I learned how we are seen by others around the world. These kids taught me plenty and I miss having them around.

Linda
24 days ago

My personal heritage is southern on one side and northern on the other. My southern family has been in this country long enough to qualify for membership in the DAR. To my knowledge, and we’ve researched our heritage, no one was ever a slave owner. Many family members, including my grandparents, lived in what would today be considered extreme poverty tucked back into the hills of Virginia (some with dirt floors, nearly all without indoor plumbing or central heat until my teenage years). Today our large extended family includes many colors and many different lifestyles and beliefs. All are welcomed with love. One thing that remains common is our pride in our southern heritage and what we have overcome. Some express that pride by displaying the Confederate flag. Others express their pride by flying a rainbow flag. My husband and I fly the American flag. If you want to fly a BLM flag, a Mexican flag, a Blue Line flag, a Trump flag – or any other flag – I am not going to object.

Captn John
24 days ago

I’m not a racist, born American and southern by choice. Sadly, those that have a problem with the Stars and Bars were not educated on US history, especially that of the south. The south did not leave the union over slavery, but over taxation without representation. Thirty percent of the population lived in the south and paid 80% of the taxes. Over 1/2 million men from the south fought not over slavery but because their land was invaded. Just over 3% of southerners owned slaves as did just under 1% of northerners. Lincoln could care less about slavery, only taxes. There are many quotes. Slavery was on the way out with the cotton ginny anyway. The northern population was getting tired of a war they were losing and a rally call was needed for support, slavery. The north won only one major battle and few minor battles until 1864. It was them Grant pulled out of a losing battle to join Sherman in rape, arson, and murder of civilians and losses that caused Lee to quit. Cannot change history!

Julia
24 days ago
Reply to  Captn John

Captn John… Great write up & tho I bounced off of some history as offered – NEVER knew about the whole cloth. Thank you.
J in NM

Captn John
24 days ago
Reply to  Julia

Only a racist, uneducated, or uneducable can have a problem with the Stars and Bars. So much history they are trying to change, it cannot be done.

Andy
24 days ago
Reply to  Captn John

There are many points raised in this comment that can and should be disputed, but I’ll restrain myself and pick on only one. The claim that the South left the union because of taxation without representation is over-the-top laughable. Forget the fact that federal taxation in 1860 was limited almost entirely to tariffs; the Confederate states explained very explicitly why they were seceding in their individual “Declaration of Causes,” and the foremost–and often only–cause was the one Captn John is trying to duck. Mississippi, for example, stated at the outset that “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world.” Other states were just as unequivocal.

So yes, Captn, you are right on one point: there is a problem with folks not being educated in U.S. history.

Gene Bjerke
24 days ago
Reply to  Captn John

Actually, the cotton gin basically saved slavery, since it made cotton a commercial crop. Cotton is a labor-intensive crop, only commercially viable with slavery — or machines.

Sharon
23 days ago
Reply to  Captn John

If you read the individual constitutions of the Confederate states, they all include the right to own slaves. I don’t believe taxation without representation was an issue – that was the Revolutionary War. The Confederate commanders were actually traitors to the USA as they swore an oath when they were commissioned in the US Army. If you are referring to Sherman’s March to the sea, Gen. Grant did not pull out of a losing battle to join him. He was occupied at Petersburg, which led to the surrender at Appomattox.

John
24 days ago

I believe KOA missed the boat on this one. All campgrounds should ban all flags except the US, or other country that you are a citizen of. Nothing other than a country.

Jeanne D
24 days ago

Bill T commented, “Before taking offence ask yourselves, if the camper next to you is flying the LGBTQ, Iron Jack or any other flag, is it physically affecting you personally or preventing you from enjoying your stay?”
This is an excellent point. My answer on several occasions has been, “yes.” When I see a Confederate or militia flag in a campground I feel the fear in my whole body. My heart rate increases, my anxiety level goes up, and I immediately start a plan for how I will avoid being in the same place at the same time as these campers. I avoid eye contact. I don’t go down their row. I try to make myself invisible. I fear nasty remarks, mean glares, fear for my safety, and, ultimately, fear the guns I’m pretty sure they carry.
Irrational, you might say. Overwrought. Maybe so, but this is my physical reaction and, yes, it does prevent me from enjoying my stay.
I’m a 68 year old white woman who just happens to be gay.

wanderer
24 days ago

Yes, free speech is a dilemma, one man’s truth is another man’s insult.

But, for a campground owner, I don’t see the dilemma. It’s your property, fly whatever flag you want at the front gate or office.

But at the sites, I see no problem with banning confederate flags, or any other flags. Because, they make black people feel unwelcome, plain and simple. And they signal to everyone else ‘this is a right-wing park, and we will bully you into accepting our ideas or moving on’.

Campers are used to long lists of ‘you can’t do that here’ and I for one would welcome a no-flag rule. When I’m taking a peaceful walk around a park enjoying the birds I honestly don’t want to see your opinions, banners, or points of pride flapping in my face 24/7.

Roy Ellithorpe
23 days ago
Reply to  wanderer

Just curious, have you ALWAYS felt that way, or just the last few years?

Michael
23 days ago
Reply to  wanderer

Just curious, you say the Confederate flag makes black people feel unwelcome. No doubt it makes some black people feel unwelcome, others couldn’t care less. Would your attitude be the same if blacks told you that NOT flying the BLM flag made black people feel uncomfortable? Making one person’s perogatives subject to another persons feelings is a dangerous game. And it is always the fashionable opinion which is allowed to silence the unfashionable. Slavery, for instance, was fashionable for thousands of years. Its for this simple reason that our forefathers developed certain principles like free speech and fundamental rights that could not be repealed by a vote, or a law, or a mob. Those are pretty good ideas for citizens to follow as well as government.

Mike Hancock
24 days ago

I am from Texas, and see lots of Confederate flags and Confederate statues. First I would point out an obvious misunderstanding of the concept of freedom of speech. Freedom of speech relates to the government’s power to limit the freedom. It has no relevance in this discussion at all. It is your website, consortium all you want and let readers how to respond.

We erect statues to those that we revere. We should not have statues respecting traitors.

Michael
23 days ago
Reply to  Mike Hancock

This is a silly argument. Its like arguing that employers should not respect freedom of religion of their employees because the 1st Amendment applies to government. Yes, of course it does. And respecting freedom of religion is a pretty darn good idea for employers, too.

Sherry
24 days ago

As full timers for greater than 15 years we rarely camped at KOAs. Then we had to realign from California during the first week in May. When other places were cancelling our reservations KOA was clean and professional and became our go to RV parks as we traveled across country. They won us over. Now this statement banning offensive displays shows courage. Our family moved to the south in the early 1980s. As a former Chicagoan I too found the confederate flag offensive and still do. I am white and middle age To me this flag said “yankee go home”. Yet we are all one country? Now somebody flying this flag over their camper says “i am a bigot who wishes a return to jim crow days before women could vote. I glorify traitors.” I applaud KOA and wish they would shout their new policy from the rooftops.

Michael
23 days ago
Reply to  Sherry

There are several things wrong with this angry comment, i.e. women were voting during Jim Crow. But i will just address this bigoted notion that the Confederates were “traitors”. Traitors to what, exactly? A VOLUNTARY union of colonies, from which they could secede at any time? If a colony had the moral right to SECEDE from Britain and voluntarily join the Union then a state has the right to secede from the Union by the same moral authority. The “traitor” charge is straight up bigotry. If the Confederates were “traitors” so were the Founders. And that is a vile, angry view which i reject.

The moral of the story: good and decent people can and do disagree. But they do so without waving around their hatreds like a bloody flag. This discussion reminds me of kids on social media.

Gary Byler
22 days ago
Reply to  Michael

The “colonies” were not given an opportunity to “freely choose” to become a British “colony”. The states in the confederacy became a state “voluntarily” to form the United States. “They chose” to exercise their free will to become a state. Then because they wanted to perpetuate slavery they rebelled. “They chose” to commit treason. The Constitution ( which each state freely ratified ) defines treason as specific acts, namely “levying War against [the United States]” which they did. Thus they were “traitors”.

Texas v. White, 74 U.S. (7 Wall.) 700 (1869), was a case argued before the United States Supreme Court in 1869.

…the court ruled that, legally speaking, Texas had remained a United States state ever since it first joined the Union, despite its joining the Confederate States of America

…Texas (and the rest of the Confederacy) never left the Union during the Civil War, because a state cannot unilaterally secede from the United States.

Michael
21 days ago
Reply to  Gary Byler

The moral parallel between the colonies choosing to commit “treason” against the Crown and the Confederates choosing to commit “treason” against the Union drives some folks crazy because it contradicts their denigration of southern whites as “traitors”. Your argument is a good example: if the colonies had the moral authority to join a union, then they had the moral authotity to leave it. The moral logic is inescapable- if the Confederates were “traitors”, so were the founders.

Andy
21 days ago
Reply to  Michael

Michael,

Your “moral parallel” works only if the colonies had been part of Great Britain; they were not. The southern states WERE part of the UNITED States. The acceptable way for a democratic republic to address grievances is through the government to which all have representative access. The colonies did not have that with the British, but the southern states certainly did, through their Congressional delegations. By seceding, they ripped apart a constitutional fabric that never existed between England and the states.

Michael
21 days ago
Reply to  Andy

The truth is that the colonists were legally governed by and a part of The King’s realm. Your remark is flat eartherism and i wont bother to debate it. Their rebellion was an act of treason against the King by his subjects. No amount of amatuerish lawyering is going to change that. When you argue that the colonists had no democratic redress you are not arguing that it wasnt treason. You are simply justifying that treason, as the colonists themselves recognized and therefore went to great trouble to justify. The plain moral truth remains- if one has the moral authority to join a union then one, by definition, has the moral authority to withdraw from the union, irregardless of how inconvenient you find it to extend moral equality to white Southerners.

Claudio
24 days ago

accepting to print this post is good but on the other hand you write this, Your brief comments are welcome as long as they are intelligent and respectful. Others will be deleted immediately.
free speech will obviously get different opinions going but you choose to shut it down , so why do you print it ? You want to show your views but block the others ?
dont get me wrong , i am far from hanging any flag on a post , i font wear shirts with comments , i am a car guy and i dont even wear car shirts but i believe in free speech , free expression and dont really care for the sjw

Nanci
24 days ago

My black husband is from pre civil-rights Mississippi where confederate flags flew as proudly as the racism. I can only imagine that to Jewish people who lost someone to the Holocaust, the display of the Nazi Flag is as painful as the display of the Confederate flag is to those who lost their ancestors to slavery. The confederacy and the confederate flag arose from the division of the United States over slavery. To us, being in a campground where the confederate flag is flying or prominently displayed means we need to be on guard. Years ago it meant keep tabs on the kids. Now it means keep tabs on them. I will always opt to leave.

Paul S Goldberg
24 days ago

Historically the followers of the confederate flag LOST the war. Their celebrated generals were losers. So they advertise their support for the losers. They advocate for a regime of bigots. Let them have their flag and know them for who they are.

Steve
24 days ago

Thank you for your thoughtful article. Very interesting how much attitudes have changed in the 30 years since our family moved back to Colorado from Virginia.

When I was in the Army, I was stationed at Ft. Lee, VA, and had TDY assignments at Ft. Bragg, NC, and Ft. Hood, TX–all 3 named for Confederate generals. Decades later, my company transferred me to Richmond, VA. You can imagine the difficulty of explaining the presence of the huge statues of Confederate generals at Richmond’s major intersections to my young teen sons, who were born and raised in Colorado and had never personally experienced Confederate “history”. And now not only those statues, but the names of those Army posts are under fire!