Sunday, June 21, 2015

A Word About That Flag

UPDATE: The Confederate Flag will come down. As reported by FITSNews, SC lawmakers have decided to remove the flag from the State House grounds to the Confederate Relic Room, a museum in downtown Columbia near US Hwy 1 and the Congaree River. And that's perfectly fine by me. Reportedly this will be done as soon as the lawmakers can manage it. We'll have to wait to see how soon that actually is.

Now, predictably, the shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston is being ignited as fuel for a political argument that is only tangentially related to the shooting itself. Not just one, either. Obama thinks it's a good time to throw down on gun control, but most of the media focus is on the Confederate battle flag on the State House grounds. Though I'd rather continue to talk about the courage and grace of the people of Charleston, I feel a bit forced by current discourse to address this. And I'm pretty sure that most of you aren't going to like it.

I am going to play Devil's Advocate here to a degree, because those of you who do not live here know even less of this state and its people than you imagine. Your understanding is shaped by outmoded memes, ancient movies, cartoons, popular culture, and the opinions of comedy show hosts funneled into your television sets. 

As I mentioned in my last post,  I've lived elsewhere; I've seen your brand of racism; you have no basis for your sense of superiority. Rather, look to the superior example of the people of Charleston, SC, who have met adversity without rancor or an escalation of violence.


Before I move on, I should explain where I stand, culturally.

My father was Native American. My grandparents were immigrant German-speaking Hungarian Jews. Obviously no member of my family has ever owned a slave, nor would we want to. But we do understand symbols; particularly symbols of oppression. Also recognize that I am trans-cultural, having been been born and raised in this state, instructed from first grade until my graduation in nearly all-black schools. I'm also from what was once called a broken home. My mother worked in a factory, and eventually remarried. My step-father was a South Carolinian who worked for The State newspaper, saved his money, and after his parents' death bought the farm on which he was born in order to raise Christmas trees.

I, as the grandchild of an immigrant Jew from Europe, whose close relatives were gassed to death in concentration camps, have no problem looking at a swastika. Here's why: symbols have only the power that we decide to give them. That's not intuitively obvious to people who have been taught to desperately cling to oppression, but it's true. It is just a design. It doesn't inherently mean one thing. Rather, it means something to you. To the Nazis, that crooked cross was a symbol of their superiority. To a Jain, it is an emblem of peace. To Jews, it is an emblem of oppression. To many modern Germans, one of embarrassment. To me, someone not quite two generations removed from that war, it is a reminder of a regime and a philosophy that must be remembered with clarity so that it is never again repeated. I don't feel fear, but resolve. When I see it, I'm reminded, Never Again. I'm also reminded that the superiority of the Nazi was an illusion, and a lie. I don't need to ban a symbol that holds no power over me.

I hope the parallel is clear, and that you recognize that the analog between the swastika and the Confederate Battle Flag is quite good. Nevertheless, having control over my own interpretations, I have neither love nor hate for a mere scrap of cloth. Remember, a symbolic bit of color isn't more powerful than the meaning you hold in your heart. If you're fixated on racism, that's all you see. So to some there can be no other meaning. But to many South Carolinians, it's a remembrance of family members who fell in a horrible war on their own land. You may join me in disagreeing with the causes (or excuses) for that war, but that doesn't change the fact that these were also humans, as were their children and grands. To others, this same symbol might be a rebellious reminder that in America even an offensive viewpoint may be aired; a symbol of oppression; or -- just as the swastika is to me -- a reminder of a past that we should always remember with absolute clarity so as not to repeat it. Because it is a symbol, and meanings are assigned by all of us separately and individually, it is all of these things at once.

If someone tells you that a symbol -- not just the rebel flag, but any symbol whatsoever -- means the one thing they decree it to mean and nothing else... well, let's just say that they're not imparting the truth. That's simply not the way that symbols work. When someone like this black student at USC Beaufort says it means something completely different to him, that's because it does. And he's not the only one, either. None of us have the authority to assign that meaning for another person.

Furthermore, there are multiple ways to deal with an offensive symbol.  One is to engage in censorship, make the symbol taboo, accentuate the differences, and give it more and more strength as you do. Frankly, that doesn't appear to work very well.

Another path is to set usurp the meaning of the symbol and rob it of its power, leaving it either impotent or representative of a positive concept. I want you to recall that the swastika was a symbol of peace in Jainism for thousands of years before the Nazis hijacked it. If a symbol can be corrupted, it can be purified. This is reappropriation or recontextualization. Follow the link for numerous examples. And here's where it gets touchy, and a little complicated. Meanings change over time. If you were raised from infancy in an environment that celebrated that flag as nothing more than a symbol of regional pride, then that is what it is, regardless of what it meant to a dead generation. Reappropriation replaces the meaning. They're not lying when they report what it means to them, and are genuinely offended at being told (quite inaccurately) what they supposedly think.


It is not that South Carolinians deny a racist past. On the contrary, this state has had more first-hand experience with the devastation resulting from racism than most of you can possibly imagine. Also, it is not that South Carolina does not have racism today: we certainly do. I started school in the 1960s. I was one of that first group of children bused from one district to another. I grew up in a school that was overwhelmingly Black. I despise racism, regardless of the direction from which it comes. I hate it, not only because of the way that it has hurt my friends, but also because of the way it has hurt me.

But we don't really have the luxury of the Northern brand of racial censorship in the South... that which would lock something away and pump it up until you scream in terror at the slightest peek.[1] We see the same television shows you do. We are constantly bombarded with messages about how racist we are, how evil we are; and no matter how hard we work to demonstrate otherwise, it doesn't matter outside the borders of our state, because it's not the sort of thing that you who own the media are interested in putting on television, in books, in newspapers. Nevertheless, you relentlessly whip that horse. So we have gone down another path. That is to reclaim and rehabilitate those symbols, and to balance that attempt with respect for others.

Those of you from elsewhere tend to think of "southern hospitality" as some sort of cliché or a joke. It isn't. It's a very deep-seated thing; part of what we call "home training" -- manners. For us, manners don't end with saying "please" and "thank you" and knowing how to set a table. Rather, it's the core understanding that even people you don't like deserve that base level of respect due from one human to another for no reason other than that they are human.

Lack of understanding of this is why people from other places are shocked when they move here and discover that we act civilly to one another... that a white guy and a black guy can go hunting together, armed to the teeth, in a pickup truck with a rebel flag in the back window... and it's the black guy's truck.

It's easy, and somewhat thoughtless, to dismiss all rebel flag proponents as "neo-Confederate revisionists". Of course, some of them are; and for the rest this is partially true, as reappropriation is indeed revisionism (minus the amnesia). But "neo-Confederate"? You're not going to find much of that, not seriously. To be sure, we still jokingly bat around phrases like "the South shall rise again", but you need to stop laughing at that, too. As your factories rust, we build new ones. Bankers in the Southeast look to Charlotte, not New York. And when you want a sunny vacation, we gladly take your money. But no one here wants a return to plantations and slavery. They do, however, cherish local autonomy from oppressive central control, believing that the most sensible government is that which is closest to the People. They don't want the slavery of others, nor do they want the tyranny that you would impose on them. And there is the modern Southern meaning of that rebel flag. It veils a reminder that a government must continue to serve its people, or they will abandon it.[2]

This is not a horrible message. This censorious fellow would like to shock "neo-Confederates" into line by calling them traitors. Of course, the newsflash, dateline 1776, is that this entire country was established by traitors. Every man who stepped aboard ship and chucked tea into Boston Harbor was a traitor to his legitimate government. Every man who signed the Declaration of Independence, or raised a gun against a redcoat was a bona fide traitor to the Crown. In America we advertise our treachery daily, we revel in it, and on the fourth day of July we celebrate it with fireworks and gluttony. You can't do that and shame another man for the same. To be American is to proudly and unrepentantly embrace the actions of the traitors who founded this country. These men would have still been patriots had they lost the war, just as the men and women of Tiananmen Square were patriotic Chinese despite their massacre at the hands of their government. Clearly it is the motivation of a person that justifies his action. It is not the ends that justify the means, but the reasons. And we're not talking about the symbolism of people 150 years dead, but of a person alive today. But perhaps that's a bit too subtle for a Pennsylvania boy who's never set foot in South Carolina or spoken to his own neighbor.


Obviously, it's not all kumbaya. There are tensions. Some people are racist assholes. And some people cannot conceive that a person is not thinking the thoughts that they think for him. And some people cannot get past their own pain. Some can't be bothered to consider the intent of another person, just as others can't be bothered to consider someone else's anguish. For this and many other reasons, there is deep disagreement as to what direction to take with that particular symbol, the rebel flag. Reappropriation or censorship.

click to visit the Washington Post
Once, the rebel flag flew above the State House dome, but it was removed as a compromise measure in 2000 to fly low in a more modest place among the other memorials on the grounds. Though I think it could be more modest still (it is directly in front of the State House steps), contrary to some reports, it is not flying above those that were capable of being lowered to half-staff in memory of the victims of this shooting (Those are on the dome itself). The flag on the war memorial is a semi-permanent part of a monument, and is not ceremonially raised and lowered as the US and Palmetto flags are. It is affixed to the top of the pole by a metal link, not a pulley system, and cannot be lowered, only removed; and by law this must be done by the vote of the General Assembly.

Now, for my part, I don't advocate censorship, and would rather see this symbol reappropriated as a symbol of defiance and tolerance. Defiance, in that it is a reminder that the points expressed in the Declaration of Independence didn't expire on July 4th, 1776, but remain as relevant today as the day they were penned.[3] Tolerance, in that it is a reminder that a society with free speech must not limit those freedoms to what is popular.[4] However, I also don't think this flag is something that needs to be glorified. One doesn't need the government to re-appropriate a symbol, except to the extent that government follows their constitutional mandate to protect free speech. Re-appropriation is done by the people; and they should not be discouraged from reclaiming something for good intent. Neither can it be forced upon them, and I have no fantasy that this particular symbol is essential to communicate the concepts I mentioned above. We could get along without it on state property just fine.[5]

But I also believe that a compromise, arrived at in good faith, should not be summarily tossed aside. One's word should actually mean something.  In this case I feel that it means the issue deserves some thoughtful discussion. South Carolinians aren't of one mind about that flag. The fact that there are people who are passionate about both sides of this issue simply reminds us that this is exactly what compromises are for.

Senator Lindsey Graham attempted to be respectful of the feelings of many groups when he opined on the topic of this flag on CNN. There are a lot of things I don't agree with Senator Graham on, but I see his point here.

As Senator Graham has stated, this is perhaps a good time to review whether the Battle Flag should remain in its present place; somewhere else; or be taken down entirely. But this is purely a matter for South Carolinians. It is up to us to voice our opinions to each other, weigh them, and come to a decision that works for us. This is our state; our home. You have one of your own. So please, tend to your own nest, as you haven't finished fouling it yet.

[1] What I mean by the "Northern form of racial censorship" is the idea of making something taboo. For instance, the "N" word is socially acceptable, but only for some people, and even then often in a generally negative context. For all others it holds exactly the same stigma as it always has, and that's the same as no rehabilitation at all.  More generally it means locking something away. For instance, in ghettos. You might want to consider that the black population of South Carolina is about 30%, or roughly two and a half times the national average. As such, we don't exactly have ghettos in the sense of say, NYC. Instead we have poor neighborhoods... and white people live in them, too. And we have black neighborhoods that look just like the white ones, and we have mixed neighborhoods that look like the others.

[2] Yes, I know that's not what the Civil War was about. That's the point of re-appropriation. You take something and give it new meaning, while remembering what it once was, now divorced of its former stigma and power.

[3] If you're surprised to see defiance here, don't be. Read the Federalist Papers and examine the thoughts of the Founding Fathers regarding the proper role of government as a servant of a free and sovereign People. Though equal rights were not afforded to everyone at the time, it should have always been our aim to extend them to everyone; and never to use the fact that they were historically limited to deny them to all. Poor execution of a principle does not invalidate the principle.

[4] The Oxford English Dictionary lists a word that is specifically reserved for the toleration of only those views, beliefs, or behavior that agree with your own: "INTOLERANCE"

[5] This flag does something, however, that a substitute such as "Don't Tread On Me" does not. It reminds our government that the message is not intended solely for those who would attack the United States from without. Rather, it is intended for them.

No comments:

Post a Comment