The Symbols of Who We Are

by Paul Olson, President Emeritus

The picture of the woman, Bree Newsome, climbing the flagpole near the Confederate Memorial in Columbia, South Carolina to take down the Confederate flag, moved me. She was arrested for doing what resistance to bigotry demanded. That climb and her subsequent arrest said even more to me about where South Carolina and the nation have been than the “black lives matter” marches or President Obama’s eulogy to the Rev. Pinckney and his powerful singing of “Amazing Grace.” These actions said that individual courage can disrupt consensual symbolism.

The Confederate flag did not stand for the southern way of life, for ‘states’ rights,’ for crinoline and great houses. It stood for hate. Or rather, all of these—way of life, states’ rights rhetoric, crinoline, great houses and Confederate flag—all stood for a pretense of civilized grace covering a white savagery. That savagery lasted for more than 300 years and is still with us. South Carolina’s Confederate 1861 plot against the U.S. began as a treasonable effort to defend the economic rights of slaveholders. Its century-later 1961 re-adoption of the Confederate flag (a gesture of defiance to the Civil Rights movement) defended the economic prerogatives of Southern white elites. A racist rhetoric originating in those elites and circulating in so-called ‘redneck’ circles kept power in the hands of the elites, enjoying their mint juleps and unquestioned economic power. The North now too often emulates the South.

Symbols matter. Taking down symbols also matters. The Confederate flag and its accoutrements gave hatred the face of civility, culture, Greco-Roman law and order and agrarian refinement—a polish similar to that of the fox-hunting class in England. But it was all savage: slavery, Jim Crow, ‘slavery by another name,’ sharecropping, ‘separate but equal,’ lynchings, and police lynchings. We still have a remnant of this savagery. We will not possess a genuinely civil society until we dismantle the symbols that legitimize such evil and make tyranny appear like civilization and democracy.

Let me name a few of these symbols:

• The FBI building—the J. Edgar Hoover building—honoring the nation’s chief cop, a racist, blackmailer of presidents, feeder of anti-communist myths to Joe McCarthy, and ultimately a failure in his job of controlling organized crime. (JEH did virtually nothing about the Mafia or other organized crime syndicates in his later years until ordered by Bobby Kennedy to act.)

• Mount Rushmore. Built by a racist, Gutzon Borglum, Mount Rushmore supposedly enshrines sovereign American democracy, but it is built on land sacred to the sovereign Teton Sioux—reserved for them as a sovereign nation in the treaties of 1868 and 1882. As a shrine to democracy, it pays tribute to two slave-holders, Washington and Jefferson, and one Indian/African-American hater: Teddy Roosevelt, who said that nine times out of 10 the only good Indian is a dead Indian, that “the most vicious cowboy has more moral principle than the average Indian” and that African Americans are “a perfectly stupid race.” Rather than dedicating sacred Indian land to Roosevelt, we should rather rededicate the capitalistic squalor of Whiteclay, renaming it “Teddy Roosevelt Town.”

• The Strom Thurmond federal building and courthouse in Columbia, South Carolina, built in Marcelo Breuer’s appropriately named “brutalist style” and dedicated to the senator who, from 1954 until 2002 fought for bigotry, white privilege and racism: “I wanna tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that there is not enough troops in the Army to force the southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigra race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.” Thurmond, admitting an African American woman into closer quarters than church or swimming pool, fathered a child on her—one whom he never acknowledged as his own blood. Imagine an African American citizen going into that courthouse to seek justice.

• The Richard Russell Senate office building named for the bigot who controlled Senate Democrats from the 1940s to the 1960s.

• The Enola Gay display at the Smithsonian Institution that was changed after right-wing militaristic protests so that the Hiroshima bombing was sanitized and the murder of a population of color the size of Omaha concealed by a pseudo-history.

I could go on.

These public symbols tell us that racism and contempt for the lives of people outside the circle of privilege are alive and well in America. They tell us that economic deprivation, police profiling, housing discrimination and voter suppression are deserved. Too many of our public monuments and buildings place discriminatory attitudes on a map of social consensus that seems to be beyond legal and cultural challenge. The eulogies to the historical misdeeds and injustices embodied in the symbols I’ve listed are unaccompanied by explanatory notes that clearly and accurately spell out where myth is being made and murderous content legitimized. It is not accidental that the church murderer in Charleston chose the Confederate flag and the flags of apartheid Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa as his emblems.

These symbols are not just the products of some past climate of the times (though they are that too). They are statements of an ideology that lives and propels violence in our midst.

That said, public symbols can work for human decency. The Statue of Liberty delivers a different message from the monuments listed above—one that the Tea Party might well read. So does the Nebraska capitol building with its tributes to the evolution of law in Africa, Asia, Europe and American Indian cultures. So does the Museum of the American Indian and the Martin Luther King monument in Washington. So does the Nebraska statue of William Jennings Bryan, Tolstoyan peacemaker and justice seeker, whose presence once graced the Nebraska Capitol but was subsequently relegated to an obscure location by a hawkish legislature wanting to censor his political meaning out of existence.

Our country’s public symbols say what it is we are and who we wish to be. The symbols should be proud representations of what we aspire to. Unfortunately, the violent energy that our debased iconology presently creates destroys innocent lives. Questioning the consensus-building power of these symbols is every bit as much our job as it was Bree Newsome’s.

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