The politics of symbols

Sam Smith – Last week, as a guest on the Mark Thomson Show (Sirius/XM 127), I found myself mainly listening to Mark and a southern man on the subject of the Confederate flag.

The immediate topic was the ugly display of the flag in front of the White House during a recent protest but it soon moved towards a debate between the historic evils with which that flag has been associated and arguments that it was really just a symbol of a particular part of the country.

I couldn’t find a comfortable place in the discussion because too many random thoughts came to mind. I realized, for example, that as an activist I had learned not to challenge someone’s pet symbols because even if a Confederate flag sticker is removed from a car there is no guarantee that the driver will think any differently. You have to convince the driver of a politics that encourages the voluntary removal of the sticker.

And then there are the multiple meanings of a symbol. A southern flag stuck on the back of a pickup may be more a symbol of machismo or regionalism than of ethnic hostility. And there are many who consider only their own meaning and not the effect the symbol has on others. Even if the flag is posted in innocence it doesn’t have an innocent effect.

And what about that caller? If he was as bad as his enthusiasm for the Confederate flag might suggest, why was he listening to a black progressive’s talk show in the first place? Perhaps the symbol argument concealed some common ground.

After the show I recalled a southern activist telling me that the Confederate flag would fade only when the South became politically a better place. Symbols are just that: they are symbols. Change the reality and the symbols, and their meaning, change in the wake.

You can even do it as a form of positive activism as Rosalind Urbach Moss has described:

Explicitly racist uses made it difficult to perceive Confederate flags primarily as regional signifiers, creating identity problems for white Southerners who were not segregationists. This meant that white Southerners who fought for, or even merely supported, integration or equal rights had difficulty expressing symbolically their regional identity. Progressive Southerners had a unique problem: how to represent symbolically their emerging, but still mostly potential, political, and cultural possibilities—especially since other Americans increasingly tended to stereotype all white Southerners as racists. Was an integrated new “New South” with a unique regional identity possible? Or would potential New Southerners have to reject their southern identity to affirm their support for social and racial justice? One group of embryonic new New Southerners tried to create an inclusive symbolic identity. The Southern Student Organizing Committee was founded as part of the Mississippi Freedom Summer project in 1964 by southern whites involved in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. They adapted the Confederate flag to express a regional identity they could be proud of by superimposing the SNCC logo, clasped black and white hands, across the center of the old battle flag.

Yet even a well meaning reinterpretation of a symbol like the Confederate flag can fail to compensate for the history of hate and wrong that a symbol can carry with it.

In the days since the aforementioned radio conversation, the issue of the Washington Redskins has also risen to the fore.

One of the problems in this instance is that football itself is a dubious symbol that few talk about. If you compare football to baseball, for example, you find that the latter is an athletic expression of democracy. The players have their own turf yet must constantly cooperate to make things come out right. As with jazz, you learn to solo but also to back up someone else’s solo. And it is a game not a battle.

Football is much closer symbolically to a form of dictatorship. It is tightly controlled from the top and dependent on the participants following the orders they have been given. It is about war, power and invasion of territory.

Further, according to one study, only about eleven minutes of each contest actually involves what the teams are supposedly up to. The rest is just a massive symbolic super dome above the players and their audience. Not unlike the symbols that powerful governments impose on their people.

As the Wall Street explained its examination of the issue:

if you tally up everything that happens between the time the ball is snapped and the play is whistled dead by the officials, there’s barely enough time to prepare a hard-boiled egg. In fact, the average telecast devotes 56% more time to showing replays.

So what do the networks do with the other 174 minutes in a typical broadcast? Not surprisingly, commercials take up about an hour. As many as 75 minutes, or about 60% of the total air time, excluding commercials, is spent on shots of players huddling, standing at the line of scrimmage or just generally milling about between snaps. In the four broadcasts The Journal studied, injured players got six more seconds of camera time than celebrating players. While the network announcers showed up on screen for just 30 seconds, shots of the head coaches and referees took up about 7% of the average show.

In other words, what football is meant to symbolize is, in fact, completely overwhelmed by other matters.

Here’s how I once described the football vs. baseball problem

 [Football] speaks to us with Orwellian omnipotence from screens in bars, behind store counters and perched on stools in parking lot shacks. It is the male thing of which to speak during the darkening months and if one wishes more than a cursory conversation with other males then more than a cursory glance at the sports pages is required. For while it is all right to be indifferent to baseball, soccer, or hockey – if one is discreet about it – indifference to football verges on androgyny or worse…

Football was long kept in its place in part by the American love of baseball, that remarkably friendly game that more than any other sport seemed to reflect national political and social ideals. Slow as a bill working its way through Congress, enamored of individual eccentricity, full of conflict between citizen (ball player) and authority (umpire), organized in American technological fashion with a specialist for every position all working towards the same goal but keeping a genteel distance from each other, dependent upon skills other than physical size, and featuring the pitcher as democratic hero, recallable upon loss of a vote of confidence, baseball was closely attuned to the way we were.

 But we ‘didn’t stay the way we were. As America’s imperial longings became more apparent, as merchandising considerations increasingly insinuated themselves into every corner of our values, as our businesses merged and our minds conglomerated at the drop of anything bigger, more exaggerated or more “super,” and as television demanded larger audiences as the price of admission to its cameras, the countless, casual, dreamy and so unextraordinary afternoons of baseball no longer were what we were about. Baseball had been a way of life for America, but America’s life had lost its way. As we lost confidence in the future, we needed something that would fulfill the moment – the moment that was increasingly to serve the functions of past, present and future. We no longer wished to wait a half a year to find out who had won or lost or to choose our heroes only after observing their performance in scores of games. Professional football brought us the Big Event – history in an afternoon, destiny a baker’s dozen of hours on a 100-yard patch of artificial turf.

 Football further not only involves an unreasonable number of individual injuries but a progressive deterioration of the physical health of nearly all players. The spectator is not viewing an occasional accident, but the pandemic maiming of most of those on the field …

 Since the 1980s, when the First American Republic began to collapse, one of the most democratic of sports, baseball, has declined from being tied with football, one of the most fascist of sports, to being 23 points behind in popularity according the latest Rasmussen Report:

“53% say football is their favorite sport to follow. Baseball comes in a distant second with 16% support, while basketball is the favorite of 11%. Six percent of Americans prefer hockey, with no other sport including soccer, auto racing, golf and tennis reaching five percent.”

 That’s a 29 point leap for football and a seven point drop for baseball since a Harris survey in 1985.

 In other words, the really dangerous symbol here is not the Redskins but football itself.

But it is far easier to challenge the former because everyone can feel nice and virtuous about it without ever having to deal with the deeper problems. Just as it is much easier to get a Confederate flag sticker off the back of a pickup than it is to end the current southern assault on various rights and liberties.

The problem with issues like the flag and the Redskins is that even if you win not all that much may have changed. Reality changes our symbols rather than the other way around.

Sam Smith, 2004 – When a politician of the Democratic Party actually reached out to those who weren’t like himself earlier this year, the liberal establishment was quick to trash him. Howard Dean’s desire to get the votes of people who drove pickups with confederate flag stickers was excoriated by Kerry and Gephardt.

By any traditional Democratic standards, this constituency should be a natural. After all, what more dramatically illustrates the failure of two decades of corporatist economics than how far these white males have been left behind? Yet because some of them still cling to the myths the southern white establishment taught their daddies and their granddaddies, Gephardt and Kerry didn’t think they qualified as Democratic voters.

It is also interesting to note, as William Saletan did in Slate, that Dean received quite a different reception before he became the frontrunner. Here’s what he told the Democratic National Committee last February:

“I intend to talk about race during this election in the South. The Republicans have been talking about it since 1968 in order to divide us, and I’m going to bring us together. Because you know what? White folks in the South who drive pickup trucks with Confederate flag decals on the back ought to be voting with us because their kids don’t have health insurance either, and their kids need better schools too.”

Wrote Saletan:

“I have that speech on videotape. I’m looking at it right now. As Dean delivers the line about Confederate flags, the whole front section of the audience stands and applauds. It’s a pretty white crowd, but in slow-motion playback, I can make out three black people in the crowd and two more on the dais, including DNC Vice Chair Lottie Shackelford. Every one of them is standing and applauding. As Dean finishes his speech, a dozen more black spectators rise to join in an ovation. They show no doubt or unease about what Dean meant.”

In fact, the best way to change people’s minds about matters such as ethnic relations is to put them in situations that challenge their presumptions. Like joining a multicultural political coalition that works. It’s change produced by shared experience rather than by moral revelation. Martin Luther King understood this as he admonished his aides to include in their dreams the hope that their present opponents would become their future friends. And he realized that rules of correct behavior were insufficient: “Something must happen so as to touch the hearts and souls of men that they will come together, not because the law says it, but because it is natural and right.”

This doesn’t happen logically, it doesn’t come all at once, and it doesn’t come with pretty words. Tom Lowe of the Jackson Progressive voted a few years ago in favor of a new Mississippi flag without the confederate symbolism.

But in retrospect, he wrote later, he realized that the voters’ rejection of the change was a honest reflection of their state of mind: “Perhaps a time will come when we have truly put aside our nasty streak of racism. When that time arrives, maybe we will choose to replace the flag with something more representative of our ideals. On the other hand, when we reach that point, we may no longer care about the symbolism of the Confederate battle flag. Or perhaps we will keep it for another reason: to make those of us that are white humble by reminding us of our less than honorable past.”

The decline the Democratic Party has been accelerated by the growing number of American subcultures deemed unworthy by its advocates: gun owners, church goers, pickup drivers with confederate flag stickers. Yet the gun owner could be an important ally for civil liberties, the churchgoer a voice for political integrity, the pickup driver a supporter of national healthcare. Further, the greatest achievements of the Democratic Party, both in terms of good legislation and votes, came under presidents who were willing to deal with southern politicians far more retrograde than your average Falwell follower. Today’s liberals never could have created the Great Society; they would have hated too many of the people whose votes were necessary to make it happen.

The strange thing – strange that is to an era that believes that all progress is the product of propaganda and salesmanship – is that taking a more laisse faire attitude towards what others think offers greater opportunity for antagonists to come together simply because they have less to fear from each other.

As has been said, the powerful do what they will, and the weak do what they must. And part of the latter in times of fear and uncertainty is to find safety in faith, homilies, and congregations of the like minded. Then the powerful exploit the anxiety of those living in the caves of their souls, making it all that more difficult for them to find the light again.

Our job, however, is not to resave them for rationalism, but to engage in real politics: which is the art of getting people to think about the right things, things like what is happening to their jobs, healthcare, and housing costs. And if a gun-toting, abortion hating nun wants to help you save the forest, put her on the committee. Change comes when the people who the powerful wish to keep apart discover their true common interest.

There is no progress in polarity; the secret is in unexpected alliances. It’s way past time to find the issues around which they can form. And then to make it happen.

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