RALEIGH — Pet Peeve, take three-hundred-and-something, and . . . Action!
North Carolina’s claim to be “First in Flight” is pathetic. For decades, North Carolinians were proud to refer to themselves, and declare plainly on their license plates, that our state was “First in Freedom.” Then, reflecting a combination of regional assertiveness and feelings of inadequacy, North Carolina’s leaders decided to play up the first powered flight by the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk. A new marketing campaign, and a new license plate, followed shortly thereafter.
We’re going to hear more and more about this spurious claim as the centennial of the first flight approaches. For example, on the Associated Press wire today, a story pit Ohio lawmakers against North Carolina lawmakers reenacting the same old squabble about the same trivial issue.
In this account, as in some many others, the Ohio folks come off as more reasonable and mature. Obviously, they admit, the Wright brothers chose to test their airplane on the windy beaches of Kitty Hawk. Fine. Great. North Carolina has a lot of wind. But the Wrights were from Ohio, they did virtually all the important work in Dayton, and they were part of a community of tinkerers there. Ohio, not North Carolina, is the real “Birthplace of Aviation.”
These are historical facts. I’d say that it pains me as a native North Carolinian to recognize them, but the truth is, I just don’t care. If the best my state can offer the world as a claim to fame is that its northeastern beaches were windy and largely unpeopled at the turn of the century, then it seems to me that the stakes are pitifully small.
Of course, that’s not the best claim we can make. How about our critical role in the American Revolution? It began with the first movements towards independence in the colonies. It concluded with pivotal battles along the North Carolina-South Carolina line and at Guilford Court House. How about the state’s unwillingness to ratify the U.S. Constitution without some guarantees that it wouldn’t become injurious to individual rights? How about our unique and complex role in the Civil War? How about the many North Carolinians who, like the Wright brothers in aviation, brought creativity and innovation to a host of fields, from industrial manufacturing to the arts? How about the 1960 sit-in at a lunch counter in Greensboro that helped begin the painful but necessary and long overdue process of dismantling racial segregation? These are accomplishments in North Carolina by North Carolinians that had widespread and lasting significance.
Real patriots shouldn’t be party to propaganda. And that, unfortunately, is what all the “First in Flight” hoopla has become. Naturally, I think that the centennial of the events at Kitty Hawk is immensely important, and deserves commemoration. But North Carolina shouldn’t be trying to assert much in the way of ownership over the event. It makes our state look petty and provincial. We can do better.
And . . . cut. That’s a Pet-Peeve wrap.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.