Symbols and Smoke Signals

Things stand for things, right? That’s the whole precept of language, of art, of stories, of life. The banding on that snake means that if it gets its fangs in you, you’re dead. Stay away. The presence of all these closed doors in this character’s life show you how trapped she feels. Let it go. That painting of a monkey doing a handstand on top of the tin man is symbolic of, you know, the struggle of the primitive against the technological. Or something. Or maybe it’s just some jacked-up Wizard of Oz fan art.

It’d be hard to identify a symbol as intrinsically symbolic as a flag, though. A closed door can be a symbol of entrapment or inaccessibility, but sometimes it’s just, y’know, a door. A flag, on the other hand, by its very nature stands for something. When you fly a flag, it’s a big announcement to the world that this is who I am, this is who we are, this is what we stand for.

Which is why I think this psychopathic racist kid with his shooting spree, in trying to set off a race war, has actually done something productive. Not with his murders, but by associating his particular brand of poison with a symbol.

This symbol.

The confederate flag has long been a troublesome symbol. On the one hand, it is, legitimately, a symbol of the Confederate States back at the time of the Civil War. And lots of people, especially in the South, have family that lived in the same area at that time. That probably died for that cause. And the flag is, for them, a symbol of their heritage, their family, their land. Flying the flag demonstrates their pride in that heritage. And the fact that they see it that way is fine.

Problem is, the Confederates were fighting, among other things, to retain the ability to keep slaves. So of course, the critics are quick to point out that to them, the flag is therefore a symbol of slavery. Flying a flag, then, becomes a statement in favor of slavery, in favor of segregation, in favor of any sort of racist thing you can think of. And the fact that they see it that way is fine.

Symbols are tricky things. They mean only what our society agrees they mean. We can all agree that the green light in The Great Gatsby represents the love Gatsby feels for Daisy, a love he will never actually reach, a light whose heat he will never feel. Or maybe it represents Daisy herself, again, perpetually out of his grasp, separated from him by a bay of misunderstandings and screwed-up ideals. There’s no controversy because either a) we all agree on its meaning or b) we can understand why others view it in a different way. With the Confederate flag, there’s no such agreement, because the people who hate it are morally and righteously offended by the people who fly it and the ideals they embrace, while the people who honor it don’t understand why the critics get so uptight about it. (Except for the racists who fly it because they’re racists. Screw the racists.)

And that’s where the conversation about the Confederate flag has been locked for, oh, I dunno, decades? No headway is made because these people have their view and everybody else can go to hell, and those people have their view and everybody else can go to hell, and everybody who decides to get involved in the discussion just ends up sore and pissed off over it.

Until this guy went and shot up a church after taking a ton of pictures of himself with the Confederate flag. You or me flying a Confederate flag outside our houses is a tiny splash in an enormous pond. A cold-blooded mass execution carried out while waving a Confederate flag around and posing, grumpy-faced, in front of a flag is a hundred-gigawatt, laser-guided broadcast via every major news network into every living room in the country.

It’s going to be a very, very long time indeed before anybody is able to see the Confederate flag without thinking of Dylann Roof. For better or worse, that means that for the time being, the Confederate flag is unequivocally and inarguably a symbol of racism, murder, and evil. The governors of South Carolina and Alabama have already moved to stop flying the flag over their state capitols, tradition and heritage be damned. This is a pretty remarkable thing. It might even be a historic thing. The flag won’t go away, but maybe it will move from front lawns into museums and history books, where it belongs. We can only hope the movement spreads.

If you’ve been watching the news lately, you might have heard that several major retailers are no longer going to be selling merchandise that features the confederate flag. They’ll cite any number of reasons, like inclusiveness or discouraging hurtful public statements or not wanting to be associated with controversy, but at the end of the day they’re pulling the merchandise from their shelves. Which is fascinating. Merchants are taking a stand, making a statement about this symbol. Saying that they don’t want to profit from it, that they don’t want to be associated with it.

Some will argue that those retailers are doing themselves a major disservice by losing out on sales of these items themselves, but more so by people who refuse to shop there because of the statement these companies are making. I’m no economist, but I feel like they’ll pull in as much business with their statement against this symbol as they cost themselves. But I don’t care about their bottom lines, I care that they care enough to put their dollars where their mouths are.

I read a brilliant short story earlier this year: The Appropriation of Cultures, by Percival Everett. In his story, a black man begins flying a rebel flag and urges others in his community to do the same, and within a few months, the Confederate flag becomes a symbol not of the South, but rather of civil rights activists. If only the real-world treatment of the symbol had been as nonviolent. Still, it shows a model, fictional or not, of how the meaning of a symbol can change.

Maybe we’re on the brink of making this symbol as a divisive force in our country a thing of the past. Maybe it can just be evil and we can lock it in a coffin and bury it far from daylight.