At this point, I still can’t agree with the argument that a flag is just a symbol. The way I understand it, symbols represent, usually in very contradictory ways, whether these ideas are principles, beliefs, historical memories, or what have you. And whatever the causal relation, people live, struggle, and die for ideas. Ideas have powerful material consequences—if they didn’t, Thoreau, Gandhi, King, Hitler, and every other political, spiritual, and ethical leader would have said little to nothing in their attempts to persuade people. Countries would spare themselves the process of choosing a flag, an anthem, a military iconography, and so on.
When we landed on the moon, we planted a flag, and the Marine Corps War Memorial continues to evoke powerful emotions in its viewers. When Bush took us to war twice, he claimed democracy and freedom as his guiding ideas, and most likely orchestrated the toppling of a giant statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, a statue located within view of the hotel where most reporters stayed. When Isis raises its flag in a conquered territory, everyone knows that it represents a powerful and brutal belief system, and such is, in part, why they raise it. A memory hits me whenever I think of these sorts of issues. While traveling through Europe in the 90’s, I noticed a lot of Canadian flags on backpacks. I finally asked someone why they had one, for putting an American flag on my backpack had never even occurred to me, and he responded in a matter-of-fact way: “so no one thinks we’re American.” “Oh. Right,” I thought.
Flags are symbols, yes, but symbols have consequences: they mean things to people; they represent deep and powerfully emotional worldviews. They also represent long, tortured histories where all are not equal, either in condition or memory. I have been told more than once now that the Confederate flag is really no different from the American flag: after all, America has its own long history of murder, torture, abuse, and inequality. This is an undeniable truth. On the other hand, the American flag also represents the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. It represents Brown vs. The Board of Education. It represents The Civil Rights Act. The flag of America represents a long and complicated struggle, which is precisely why its meaning is broad enough for many black people to proudly salute it and raise it on their front porches.
But the Confederate flag, whatever version or derivative one chooses, carries no such clear struggles for equality, as far as I can tell, and signifies many attempts to destroy basic human rights, not only on the battlefields of the Civil War, where the battle flag first flew, but also through reconstruction and the Klan’s successful attempts to destroy black suffrage (and white sympathy), Jim Crow, Nixon’s ‘Southern Strategy’ (which rallied southern whites against civil rights and onto the Republican platform), and on up to America’s currently most pressing terrorist threat, domestic right-wing extremists. Certainly, there is heritage in that flag. Indeed, to quote William T. Thompson, the man who designed its second iteration, “As a people, we are fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the Whiteman over the inferior or colored race; a white flag would thus be emblematic of our cause…Such a flag would take rank among the proudest ensigns of the nations and be hailed by the civilized world as the ‘Whiteman’s Flag.'”
We should not be surprised, then, that Dylann Storm Roof, the young man who shot and killed nine black people in a church because they are were black, is pictured wearing a jacket with flags from Rhodesia and apartheid-era South Africa, two countries whose very modus operandi was white supremacy and black oppression. These flags represent for many extremist groups in America a vision of a world ruled by white power, a possible future that will return America to its former glory and cleanse it of the racial impurity of the present. One does not go to the trouble of sewing such seemingly obscure flags onto one’s jacket because they bear no meaning. Such acts do not occur in a void, or, which amounts to the same thing, a sea of symbolic equivalences.
Symbols sometimes protect people, and they sometimes help motivate them to kill. After all, a cross is also just a symbol, but putting it up in a church or burning it on someone’s front lawn are not the same, either in meaning or effect. Similarly, the swastika, an ancient symbol of good fortune in many cultures, became something terrifyingly different under the Nazi regime. Once draped in red and white, the black swastika simply does not mean the same thing as it would in a Byzantine church mosaic, and so it does not have the same effect on those who would worship it or those who would destroy it. To say that they are all just symbols is an active avoidance of history and a failure of empathy. If that weren’t true, we wouldn’t be fighting over this issue. Or, perhaps, any other.