If it were anybody else, it would be easy to dismiss as a gimmick, a cheap shot for a viral web video. Sew a Confederate flag and a Nazi flag together and burn them in public? C’mon, what’s your angle?
But it’s not anybody else, it is Wilkes-Barre native Gene Stilp. And while Stilp has always had a grand flair for the eye-catching antic, the causes behind the photo stunts consistently deserve attention.
Stilp became most famous for his collection of oversized pink pigs: a pink bus with a snout grill, a smaller indoor inflatable oinker, and a hefty blow-up hog that towered over the crowds for big outdoor events. They were intended to make overspending politicians blush with embarrassment as Stilp spelled out their overbearing stays at the taxpayer trough.
But Stilp was a man of action as much as allegory, a force of will as well as whimsy. He backed up his laments both with (failed) runs for office and with lawsuits and formal complaints.
One of the quirkiest involved the state Ethics Commission itself, a super-secret club that will barely admit it exists. When the commission fined him for announcing he had filed a complaint against a prominent pol, he sought and won a court injunction.
A federal appeals court wrote a well, duh! opinion: “A blanket prohibition on disclosure of a filed complaint stifles political speech near the core of the First Amendment and impairs the public’s ability to evaluate whether the Ethics Commission is properly fulfilling its statutory mission to investigate alleged violations of the Ethics Act.”
The ethics commission win is representative of his efforts because it made an alleged “good guy” — the commission — stop behaving like a mob boss determined to make sure no one can prove there’s a mob.
So when Gene Stilp went to the Columbia County Courthouse Thursday seeking — and getting — permission to burn his Nazi/Confederate flag in public, you knew it was about a deeply held moral principle, not some self-aggrandizing hype. He believes the Bloomsburg Fair should not allow vendors to sell Confederate items.
Make no mistake, it is dangerous to glibly equate anything with the horrors of Nazi Germany, and it would not be unreasonable to argue Stilp stepped over a line by linking the two. But there is a fundamental similarity: Both represented institutionalized racial supremacy taken to the battlefield.
The bigger issue may be the simpler one: Stilp has the opportunity to connect these two symbols at the Bloomsburg Fair precisely because last year the fair expelled a vendor selling Nazi flags.
Few would argue you should not have the right to buy such symbols, at least in America.
But shouldn’t fair goers have the right to attend a general audience, family friendly event without seeing symbols they may find truly offensive?
Yes, it may be a slippery slope argument, but it may be time for us to have the debate. Fair managers opened the door; Stilp simply chose to shine a light inside.