September 17, 2019

The Confederate Flag, the swastika and the problem of symbols

On July 10, 8,000 people from South Carolina took to the streets in front of the Statehouse — some in celebration, some in mourning — to witness the descent and removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state Legislature.

It took 13 hours of deliberation by the Columbia, S.C., lawmaking body to reach a final vote to remove the flag. In a testament to the power of symbols, arguments careened back and forth between the righteous and self-righteous, between those who regard the flag as a symbol of heritage and those who see it as a symbol of oppression.  

In the end, Rep. Jenny Anderson Horne, a Republican with admittedly deep ties to the Old South, squelched the standoff with an emotional polemic calling for the flag’s removal.

“The people of Charleston deserve immediate and swift removal of that flag from these grounds,” she bellowed. “This flag offends my friends” — she said, naming fellow legislator the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, one of nine African-Americans killed June 17, when a South Carolina gunman who adored the flag opened fire on a Bible study class and killing most everyone present.

Horne sobbed — and I mean gushing, waterfall sobs — as she harangued fellow legislators who dared to think twice about the flag’s removal.

“I cannot believe that we do not have the heart in this body to do something meaningful such as take a symbol of hate off these grounds,” she said. “I have heard enough about heritage! I am a lifelong South Carolinian … a descendent of Jefferson Davis, OK? But that does not matter. It’s not about Jenny Horne! It’s about the people of South Carolina who have demanded that this symbol of hate come off the Statehouse grounds.”

After 13 hours, it took only 30 seconds the following morning to lower the flag and remove it from the pole. Two State Troopers then respectfully rolled and tied it up before it was delivered to the Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum where it belongs.

Still, even at the flag’s moment of demise, while cheers and chanting struck the dominant chord, debates still raged about the meaning of the symbol: The Daily Beast complained the flag was treated like “a fallen hero” while for so many Americans it represents racism, hatred and the slave industry; defenders in the crowd insisted it represents South Carolina’s fight for “constitutional rights” during the Civil War, as one observer put it to the New York Times.

So, which is it? And who gets to decide the true meaning of a symbol?

The day after the flag was lowered and laid to rest, another fraught and contentious symbol was seen soaring through the sky: the 3,000-year-old swastika.

The nonprofit organization ProSwastika Alliance, which “revere[s] a non-Nazi related swastika as a religious symbol,” was celebrating its annual “Swastika Rehabilitation Day” by flying banners with swastikas through the skies of New York and Chicago. The group’s aim is to reclaim the ancient symbol, considered by many Asian countries and Eastern religions — China, Japan and India, Hinduism and Buddhism, among them — as a symbol of auspiciousness and luck. That damned Hitler ruined everything.

“Some people in the Western world are terrified by this symbol only because the Nazis abused and hijacked this symbol and made it into an image of evil for decades,” says the narrator of ProSwastika’s cute little YouTube video

In it, a cartoonish Hitler appears onscreen and is rapidly erased, then replaced by a robed Buddhist monk in a meditative pose who floats Greek, Celtic, Japanese and Islamic iterations of the swastika over his happy head. Pictures of the swastika’s use in monuments and landmarks both old and new flash before us: There it is in ancient Roman mosaics, on French military airplanes and on Vladimir Putin’s … horse’s tack? There it is again at Brisbane City Hall in Australia, at the Old Mint in San Francisco, and on Hollywood actress Clara Bow’s hat. 

“Last but not least,” the narrator tells us, “the swastika can be found all over Israel.” She proceeds to catalog a list that includes an Ein Gedi synagogue and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, all of which sport that sneaky swastika in their architecture.

ProSwastika Alliance hopes that their efforts to “re-educate” Westerners about the swastika’s history and meaning will help divest it of its Nazi past.

“Would you associate the Christian cross with the KKK?” the video asks.

It makes me wonder what Jesus would say about the weapon of his doom being co-opted as a religious symbol: ‘Couldn’t they have used my Good Shepherd’s stick instead?’

Even as they declaim the Nazi “besmirching” of the swastika, ProSwastika can’t seem to talk about the symbol without mentioning Hitler — perhaps proof that it is nearly impossible to divest a symbol of its meaning, even when its meanings are multiple.

Just ask author Harper Lee, whose longtime-coming sequel to her classic, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” has ignited considerable debate over the unexpected evolution of her legendary protagonist, Atticus Finch. In “Mockingbird,” Finch is the consummate symbol of the crusading civil rights lawyer, a hero fighting the good fight against racism. In “Go Set a Watchman,” which was written before her classic work but remained unpublished for half a century, Lee upends the moral certainties of “Mockingbird” and dares to depict Finch as “an aging racist who has attended a Ku Klux Klan meeting, holds negative views about African-Americans and denounces desegregation efforts,” according to The New York Times. Behold! The messiness of symbolism exemplified in literature.

Characters can change, it seems, but meanings persist. Last July, when a pro-Palestinian rally in Paris “turned into a day of terror,” according to a Vanity Fair piece on French anti-Semitism, the first thing demonstrators did was paint a black swastika on the statue of Marianne, goddess of French liberty, in the Place de la République. I strongly doubt their intention was to promote auspiciousness and peace at a rally that was soon overtaken by chants of “MORT AUX JUIFS!” Death to the Jews.

So while I appreciate the effort to strip Hitler of everything that meant anything to him, I will never be able to look upon the swastika, whether in a synagogue, at a courthouse or on Jackie Kennedy’s Native American dress, without seeing it through the eyes of my ancestors for whom it was a symbol of hate, a four-legged equilateral cross of doom, a red alarm of fear that was once a sacred and auspicious Eastern symbol called manji.

What we can gather from the symbolic events of the last week is this: Objects don’t come prepackaged with meaning; they are simply objects until we impose our meanings upon them. And symbols, like people, can be Whitmanesque and “contain multitudes.” No individual has a monopoly on meaning. 

I hate to break it to the ProSwastika Alliance, but understanding a symbol’s “true” meaning has little bearing on a person’s emotional response to it. Once a symbol has been used to oppress or offend, anger or abuse, it shouldn’t be flapping in the wind on a flagpole, or soaring through a summer sky, triumphant. The only place I want to see a swastika is in a Holocaust museum.