The Power of Symbols

One aspect of the recent, horrific events in South Carolina that has gotten some attention involves the “Confederate Flag” (technically, a rendering of the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia)–displayed on the license plate holder of the shooter (If this were a newspaper, I’d be obligated to say “alleged shooter” but it’s not so I’m not so I won’t) and also flying on the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse. Some are giving intellectual, carefully wrought defenses of the flag, explaining what it “really” means–that’s fine; such people can be written off as morally bankrupt and we don’t need to deal with them. But I’ve recently come across some who are saying, “Let’s forget about the symbol and concentrate on the substance.” That’s worth taking a moment to look at.

A symbol is a concentrated image. Symbols can be powerful rallying points, like union songs during a strike. They can establish points of commonality, both by loving them and hating them. I know my pulse quickens when I see the hammer&sickle-4, symbol of the Fourth International, because of all that it means in history and in defiance and in hope. I know that I clench my teeth on seeing the Confederate flag because of all that it means in violent, organized opposition to freedom.

Let me quote from my own book.  I can do that, because this passage was written by my collaborator: “But it’s never the symbol–the bird itself, the cross itself, the prophet’s name in and of itself that is sacred–it’s the welter of emotions, ideas, and insights it triggers. If it triggers nothing, its power is nothing.”--The Incrementalists

To be sure, a symbol can only do so much; its power is limited. It cannot answer arguments, or explore nuances, or provide a cost-effective treatment for subdural hemotoma. But thousands of avowed white supremicists have taken the Confederate flag as their symbol.  There are, no doubt, many to whom it represents something different.  Yet to me, it is significant that it is impossible to disagree on the meaning of that flag without the conversation at once leading to a discussion of the U.S. Civil war in which the person defending the flag will pull out all of the old idiocies–“It wasn’t really about slavery” “they had a constitutional right to secede” “Lincoln was a bad human being” &c &c ad nauseam. And what all of those arguments boil down to is a defense of human chattel slavery, which today means a defense of all that is backward, reactionary, ignorant, anti-democratic.

That is one thing that symbol does. Another thing it does is that in our (in my opinion, fully justified) disdain, it can bring many of us together. Whatever our differences, when use of that flag makes us seethe, we know that what we have in common is a hatred of oppression and injustice.

The differences among those of us who support equality are legion, and non-trivial. But with that much in common, it is good to be reminded that those differences may be worth talking about.

That is the power of symbols.


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25 thoughts on “The Power of Symbols”

  1. When I see that flag as a window decal on the back of a vehicle with Minnesota plates… hoo boy. Instant high blood pressure. Worse than truck nuts, or “Cash, Grass, or Ass – nobody rides for free.”

    Although really, all three operate on about the same level of sophistication of discourse…

  2. There’s a lot to be said for capturing the enemy’s flag, but that should never be mistaken for winning the war.

    My suspicion is people love to fight about symbols because they don’t know how to win the war that underlies the symbols.

  3. Love Izzard. But he did point out that the flags were backed with guns.

  4. skzb: Izzard rules!

    There’s a case to be made that letting nuts fly flags enables faster recognition of the enemy by new observers. Outlawing it might only prolong confusion among newbies. The white cone-shaped hats is also a great identifying marker. Once you get your kids recognizing that, getting them to recognize increasingly subtler signs is just a matter of practice :-)

    Will: I don’t know if the symbols fight is necessarily instead-of, but could just be a case of going after the low-hanging fruit first. Displaying a hate symbol is so obviously uncivilized it’s easy to get support behind that, whereas getting support behind some more complex idea with more entangled interests could be a harder sell. There’s also the case to be made that by reducing the prevalence of the hate symbols (and their worship) they will look less normal and more alarming when they do appear. When the government has a statute requiring a defeated army’s flag to fly 30′ over a memorial to its dead, people have an easier time “normalizing” the symbol and, by extension, the ideas it represents. Yuck, no? So I can see the attack against the symbol.

  5. Are we talking about outlawing the flag? suppressing the right to free expression of the people?

    Or merely preventing the government that is supposed to be taking care of the people from flagrantly expressing it’s hatred of them?

    I firmly believe in that last point.

  6. We are discussing, first and foremost, why we care one way or the other.

    I haven’t (yet) heard any proposals to make showing the flag illegal. I would oppose this.

    There has been talk of preventing the display on State or Federal buildings. I do not support this proposal, either.

    I do support the right of outraged people to destroy the symbol when they find it in front of State or Federal buildings. I encourage this behavior, and would gladly participate.

  7. Like virtually everything you write, this post interested me. I also found it interesting that you didn’t mention the days-old Supreme Court ruling related to the state of Texas case involving the rejection of a confederate flag license plate. Mind you, I don’t mean to suggest you needed to or were remiss in not doing so. Just sort of reminds me of the quote in Agyar… And what was the strange thing the dog did in the night?

    So the Supreme Court ruled that it is ok for a state to disallow a confederate flag license plate ruling, basically, that it is governmental speech rather than private speech and thus not subject to the 1st amendment.

    I suspect the development wasn’t really meaningful to your point, but I would be interested if you cared to address the SC opinion in light of its relation, if any, to your post.

  8. It’s only common sense if you defeat a nation you don’t let them fly their old war flag. Germans don’t get to use swastika flags. After we won the Philippines we didn’t let Filipinos fly their democracy flag. After the Mexican war we didn’t let people in our new territories fly Mexican flags. Etc.

    If they still want to revolt they will use other symbols. When the British stopped the Irish from flying Irish flags, the resistance took up other symbols. The white cockade. The clover leaf. Even just wearing green. They were defeated but they were not totally defeated, and eventually they got back the parts of their country that the British wanted the least.

    To make that sort of defeat work, you need plenty of sticks and plenty of carrots. First you make sure they know they’re defeated. Hang the leaders and their most ruthless military officers. Maybe rape most of their women. Take most of the wealth from their wealthy citizens. Cut their rations, but make sure they have enough of their lowest-status food. Then in just a few years, forgive them and finance an economic recovery. Plenty of jobs and plenty of opportunities for the defeated people to start businesses and succeed.

    Then if they commit acts of resistance, you turn back the clock in a local area. In a one mile radius, or a two mile radius, or a five mile radius, destroy the businesses, confiscate the wealth, rape the women. But quickly forgive them and go back to encouraging prosperity. They will learn to commit acts of resistance only in places that hardly anybody lives.

    This general approach worked well in the Philippines, where US forces brought resistance to a minimum in 5 years or so, and kept it at a minimum for 40 years. They did it on the cheap without that much prosperity, though. When the Japanese conquered the island they realized they needed the filipino public to cooperate, so they offered them official independence and a filipino national government formed using the old flag that the US had banned. After the Japanese lost the war, the filipino government disbanded and the USA created a new democratic government which cooperated with them. The US marines stayed, and unofficially continued to fight rebels.

    I’m pretty sure we lack the national will to do that in the US south. And if you aren’t going to go far enough to break their will, you don’t get much by just banning their flag.

  9. So, let me get this right. You alternately condemn and dismiss those who propose that there may be multiple meanings for a symbol, or that a symbol may have may have been co-opted in the general zeitgeist, and then promptly acknowledge your own quickening pulse and feeling of hope on seeing a symbol that is (or, at a bare minimum, is directly derived from) one that represents the very epitome of “violent, organized opposition to freedom”? One that is (and remains) at least tenfold associated with deaths, and with untold misery and starvation?

    Inconsistent much?

  10. Let me tell you – as a resident born in South Carolina – I am ashamed. Not just of the flag, but the blatant, unnoticed, persistent racism in this state, and other southern states.The fact that they back their hatred with Christianity makes it repugnant. And I’m not just using big words to sound impressive. It really does make me cringe and want to vomit when I hear people defending their hatred with religion. They treat their racism like it has historic value, as if letting go of it will force away their individuality. If hatred is the only thing that makes a person unique, then they’ve already died.

  11. Not to double post, but to give everyone an example: I’m standing in a crowded McDonald’s with my autistic younger brother because he loves their cheeseburgers. We are the only two white people on the customer side of the counter. Two different white families walk in the door, take a look, and leave. My brother notices after the second family, who came in as we were waiting for his food. He asked me, “Did they leave because it was crowded?” A woman behind me snorted, and I had to change the subject, knowing that he wouldn’t understand the answer. I was ashamed.

  12. I am out of the normal in not having strong feelings for symbols. A flag is not a country. The rulers are not a country. The cross or star of David or Star & Crescent or whatever are not religions. We have seen people turning names of philosophies into magic words “socialist” or “capitalist” losing their meanings and being only labels.

    Symbols are short-cuts for things that are much more complex.

  13. People back their behavior with whatever “authority” they wish. While the Religious Right is mad at the Pope for his “socialist” ideas of being stewards to this planet, they fail to look at how Jesus Christ’s values were far to the left of the Pope’s.

    Their religion is a label, nothing to do with Jesus Christ. People use labels to justify what their values no matter what those labels stand for. And no label is immune to being mis-used like that.

  14. AC: “You alternately condemn and dismiss those who propose that there may be multiple meanings for a symbol”

    I decided to let this comment come out of moderation as it provides a good example of the confused thought that seems to go so well with ignorance of history. I have no real interesting in answering “AC” as we clearly have no common basis for discussion; but his remarks are useful for expanding my position.

    I dismiss as not worth talking to those who go through long intellectual processes to defend the confederate flag. My whole point is that symbols are important, and mean different things to different people. And we can draw conclusions from how those symbols are interpreted by different people. Those who draw conclusions about me based on my attachment to the hammer & sickle – 4 of the Fourth International are almost certainly correct, and if it means they don’t want to waste time in pointless arguments with me, they are making a good decision for both of us.

  15. “I dismiss as not worth talking to those who go through long intellectual processes to defend the confederate flag.”

    Hmm. Do you grant that there’s a distinction between “defend” and “explain”? And do you grant that one’s person’s primary interpretation of a symbol may not be the same as another’s?

    While I don’t admire the artistry, I do admire the intent of Brad Paisley’s and LL Cool J’s “Accidental Racist”. I think ideologues who dismiss it out of hand miss the fact that it’s about working class people divided by race trying to understand why things that appear to say “I can’t be your ally” do not necessarily mean that.

    Lest there be any doubt here, the idea that a Confederate flag is flying on any government building in the US is ridiculous, and any true conservative would be arguing for a return to the status quo before the civil rights era, when that flag only flew in movies, museums, and tacky gift shops.

  16. I am 100% behind acts of political expression, including the destruction of federal and state property.

    I simply don’t see any reason to allow the government to be in the position of encouraging it, particularly on such blatant terms.

    I’m still contemplating a flying drone with a high powered automatic hacksaw. I also know what Jamie Heineman did wrong. Pull, not Push.

  17. As my contribution to the “hateful symbols are useful signs to spot the morally bankrupt” part of this discussion, I will just point out that not a single Republican candidate, including the black one, will admit to having an opinion about Confederate flags until after the “period of mourning” is over.

    They are all confident that the people of South Carolina will do the right thing. Now they just have to wait to find out what the right thing turns out to be…

  18. It’s not just a hateful symbol. It’s also the symbol of treason against the US.

    I have always found the defenders of that symbol to be sadly lacking in understanding what the Old South was actually like for most people. Growing up in the southern US, I knew many poor white folk that thought the Confederate Flag was great to display, representative of culture and the way things used to be…

    Only a tiny percentage of people lived well. And that was one the backs of slaves.

    I know when I see someone wearing it, displaying it, advocating for it that they are not worth my time. Please, wear your hate symbol proudly so we all know what a hateful idiot you are.

  19. It’s a lot like the Manji, or svastika, that was taken by Nazi Germany for their symbol. Very, very few people relate it to the ancient Asian symbol of good luck anymore. If you see a person wearing it on them, they’re usually Aryan Nations. Ever since the Nazi’s it’s been a symbol of hate. It doesn’t make the symbol bad, but the people who use it (besides Buddhists and the like) mean the hateful interpretation.

  20. “I have always found the defenders of that symbol to be sadly lacking in understanding what the Old South was actually like for most people.”

    I think for a lot of them it isn’t about the actual history. It’s a tribal thing.

    They’re loyal to their kin. Us versus them. Us versus any tribe that wants to take us on.

    When you talk about how their history is evil, and pathetic, how their leaders cheated them and despised them, they figure you’re trash-talking their tribe. Which you are, and you think it’s all true.

    Not like they’re going to change. They figure your tribe doesn’t want them, any more than theirs wants you.

    I don’t know what to do about it, but I figure there’s likely to be a successful secession. Probably the whole middle of the country splitting away, or most of it. We need to get the nukes out of the Red states. They don’t need them. We don’t need them there.

    When the USA got started, the different states needed each other because without mutual support the British would roll them up one by one. But now Americans don’t face any threat that’s bigger than the threat they get from each other.

  21. Like most things there are good and bad points to being “loyal to my kin”. Extreme loyalty makes wonderful stories. But when people say X-ism (fill in the blank) is the source of most of the evil in the world, a high percentage of that evil’s success is in being loyal. Loyal to one’s religious leader, loyal to one’s king – and covering up bad things done by kin. The cop who gets punished isn’t the one found to be breaking the law nearly as much as the cop who outed him.

  22. ‘Like most things there are good and bad points to being “loyal to my kin”.’

    Yes, certainly! I don’t want to say it’s a good thing. I say it’s a real thing.

    Their aggression against people they consider another tribe, blacks, is real and it’s tribal. Their perception of your aggression against them also seems tribal.

    And so the actual merits of the case don’t matter so much to them. If you think they ethically *should not* be mean to people outside their tribe who they perceive as aggressing against them, they will interpret that as more aggression against them because the criticism does not come from inside their tribe.

    While you are on the outside deciding what their tribe should do, how can it be otherwise?

    I don’t see any solution except possibly to rise up and smite them, the way eleven tribes of Israel rose up to smite the tribe of Benjamin. (Judges 20)

    Or possibly let them secede, and care for the refugees.

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