We've just had a weekend of waving flags and telling ourselves what it stands for as though it were something you could say simply and be honest about it. Does it "stand" for freedom, or independence or Genocide and the slaughter of innocents. The stars and Stripes flew over slavery for more years than any of the various Confederate flags did but it's not politic to mention it nor to question the absurdity of honoring the flag that waged war on the lag you also honor to the point of religious fervor.
The word is not the thing itself, nor is a symbol a symbol without the cooperation of the viewer, but nonetheless, we do make a terrible fuss about them. Justice Anton Scalia recently told us that words don't have a meaning any more, and although he was making a rather pathetic argument and although his intention was to disparage a rather reasonable argument by setting himself up as a dictionary and encyclopedia of terms, he's right. Words have a history, words are self-reproducing entities and so evolve, but words are not absolute, particularly in the vernacular. The same applies to symbols. The Confederate Battle flag, used as a Naval 'Jack' after 1963 and on some battlefields a bit earlier isn't subject to copyright. It "means" what you want it to mean. To some it's the symbol of a valiant effort to form a new country, to others it's toilet paper. Symbols also mean what someone says they mean and authority is such things is hard to come by. It's very hard to make an argument that a symbol should mean something I tell you it should mean or that it doesn't mean what you say it does. Sometimes, said Freud, a cigar is just a cigar and perhaps he would agree that a flag is just a flag,
Nearly everyone has an opinion of what the Confederate Battle Flag means. To people who sell them, and who use it as a symbol of "Southern Pride" tend to tell you it has nothing to do with slavery and everything to do with respect for the Confederate effort and it's all about "States Rights." Am I a cynic for adding that the States Right most in question was the right to own slaves? It's a matter of opinion. Some maintain a firm belief in some property of "Southern" culture that is easy to feel but very hard to explain. What better way to pretend there's something to be proud of than waving a flag? What better way to hide the contents of a dubious burrito than to wrap it in a flag? Who wants to see how their favorite sausage is made or what goes into it? Pride, Heritage, Liberty Are these fancy words for dog meat? Do we think about Upton Sinclair and ask how many workers fell in the meat grinder to make it?
Perhaps the Union missed an opportunity to ban the symbols of the Rebellion in 1865. the way we forced Germany and Austria to do in 1945. They missed the opportunity to launch a long term and rigorous re-education effort that's so very impossible to do today It would have had little to do with how it's seen by modern sympathizers to "the Cause" but it might have prevented the 150 year old custom of flying that flag publicly and plastering it all over license plates, truck bumpers and '69 Dodge Charger roofs to make it a symbol of something more noble. Permission once granted is hard to revoke and people who have been wrong are too adept at redefining what happened, what they were really about and so show that they weren't really wrong and they didn't really lose. Would we be better off shedding light on the true nature of the "noble cause" than arguing about semiotics and making declarations of faith?
Somehow no one is questioning the sudden obsession with that flag or its sudden identification with a hate crime no more or less egregious than the thousands of other hate crimes, but it wasn't spontaneous in my opinion. The notion that all politics is local is hard to maintain when one sees the work of choreography by well coordinated political entities ready to pounce on an event, defining it, decrying it and using it to steer the public to act in a certain way. Issues like police brutality, racist law and racist people have been issues for many more years than you or I have been around, but we address such things suddenly and with extreme emotion when only days before we would have shrugged and yawned and asked what else was new. I have to ask why a flag suddenly become the cause of 9 murders in South Carolina? Why did our way of dealing with murder become our way of dealing with symbols and when did a passionate movement suffer by repressing its semiotics? It's not that there is no correlation, no connection, but are we substituting a symbol for something much bigger, more pernicious and vastly harder to eliminate? By making it about a flag are we avoiding more rigorous and objective thought?
Will the hate culture, the Racist, politically and religiously extremist and anti-Federal Government, quasi-anarchist culture be adversely affected if the flag is taken down from any public property? Experience suggests otherwise to me. Some movements, like some vermin, proliferate better in the dark. Perhaps it's time to make up some cardboard signs saying "It's about the hate, dummy." Maybe it's time to stress that this symbol is the symbol of defeat, not of the hope for the South to "rise again."
Will repainting the roof of the General Lee make any racist think twice or impede the KKK's ability to recruit or will it help make them more romantic to paranoids? Do the myriad atrocities and the deaths of millions of innocents stain the flag we paid respect to yesterday? What I'm asking is whether the good is best served by playing Chess with symbols, by "raising awareness" and other possibly useless or counterproductive gestures. What I'm suggesting is paying more attention to more subtle and more consistent efforts to re-educate, to fight false history, to promote respect. Should we be focusing our efforts at reeducation on the young before they are captured by legends and reinterpretations and Chauvinism? Should we insist on more objective teaching of history and ethics and critical thinking?
Ah, but that costs money and takes time and isn't as much of a social event as cutting down flags and having parties while ignorant armies recruit by night.