Symbols are powerful. They’re also the refuge of a lazy mind. A simple design can be a rallying point for a basic set of beliefs that seem to cohere. No need to overthink things.
You can belong to something bigger than yourself by wearing a cross, pinning on a badge or flying a flag. Symbols are often a way of showing that you have delegated thinking to someone else. So, in many cases, symbols can be powerful affronts to reason.
Those with malignant prejudices are fond of symbols. Racism has its roots in the psychological baggage of its believer. Racism is an affront to reason and, as such, racists necessarily rely on symbols to give their ideology legitimacy. Co-opting an ancient device, be it the swastika or the Celtic cross, helps confer legitimacy through continuity. This propagandistic approach goes hand in hand with an abuse of history and science to reinforce the shaky foundations of their prejudice.
And so to the Confederate flag. It’s hot news following the tragedy in Charleston where shooter Dylann Roof gorged himself on civil war symbolism to give his bigotry a historical basis and justification.
This flag is often used in a benign way to help show a common cultural background to the southern United States. Racism “ended” with the death of Jim Crow so “Old Dixie” now stood for evangelical protestantism and Mark Twain, abstinence and bourbon, Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Allman Brothers.
This was a mistake for two reasons. First, the common Confederate flag is in fact a canton which means it’s actually the part of the flag that sits in the top right corner. The rest of the flag it first appeared in was completely white. Here’s an explanatory note from its designer:
As a people we are fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race; a white flag would thus be emblematical of our cause.
—William T. Thompson (April 23, 1863), Daily Morning News
The full flag had white supremacy at its core.
The Week They Drove Old Dixie Down
After Roof’s atrocity, there has been an interesting push from retailers from Walmart to Amazon to consign the Confederate canton into the rubbish bin of history. On the face of it, this appears well intentioned.
Frankly, and as someone who has practiced the dark arts of PR, I feel this to be motivated by the bottom line, capitalising on public grief, horror and disgust at what happened in Charleston. “Old Dixie” has long been a symbol for a treachery and enslavement so why has it suddenly become intolerable ?
You may choose to disregard my cynicism and I will concede that in some cases the motives may be pure. In any case, as both a professional propagandist and amateur (though qualified) philosopher I think the belated blackening of this canton is the wrong approach.
I wonder if, like the swastika, banning a symbol actually imbues it with more power? Display of the swastika is illegal in Germany and other European countries. It has since become a symbol of the underdog and perversely, the organised racist now feels that this is an oppression visited on them. Neo Nazis also have a martyrology and grave sites of dead leaders of Reich III sites of pilgrimage. A potent mix.
When Roof is inevitably executed and Old Dixie outlawed, the aggravated racist will have these two vital ingredients, a martyr and oppressed symbol. This puerile cocktail has been used by murdering bigots across history, be they ISIL, Teutonic Knights, the UDA or the IRA. The outlawed symbol carries more power when drenched in the blood of its martyrs.
Co-opt and Convert
“Homosexuality became a perversion but the discourse made possible the formation of a reverse discourse: homosexuality began to speak in its own behalf, to demand that its legitimacy or ‘naturality’ be acknowledged, often in the same vocabulary, using the same categories by which it was medically disqualified”. – Michel Foucault
I always admired the way the LGBT community co-opted the word “queer” or how African Americans stole “nigger”. These words had their pejorative power stripped by being used by the very minorities they once smeared. I wonder if something like this can be done for symbols such as the Confederate canton?
Symbols are often co-opted and converted successfully. The Christian cross was originally a symbol of the harshness of Roman justice, Sumerian crescents are folded into the iconography of Islam. Christianity has quite a strong record in taking what was once pagan and folding it into its own brand manual.
Perhaps the best way to kill the racists symbol is give it a different meaning and thus steal it of its exclusivity? Maybe this was already started when the mixed-race line-up of the Allman Brothers proudly flew Old Dixie not as a symbol of oppression but a symbol for the culture of the south?
If this is to occur, all those who fell foul of that flag need to grasp it and control as their own now. If it becomes the flag of a southern civil rights movement then the white supremacists lose part of their heritage leaving their poisonous beliefs appearing weaker.
I’ll end by posting this picture of the Charleston victims. Much will be written about hate vexology and Dylan Roof but these faces will more often appear just as a number. Their humanity and individuality needs to be honoured more than the maniac that so cruelly executed them. I urge a read of this article to keep this balance.
I hope that presidential candidates and major retailers remember that these people left families and legacies behind and that they work in more meaningful ways towards preventing tragedies such as this.
Perhaps they can start with education to stop racism before its entrenched and also maybe working out how to stop bigoted lunatics buying guns. This would be a better start than giving antiquated heraldry more power than it’s due.