Symbols and Actions — Not Separate

July 1, 2015

Once upon a time, my GF’s sister who had one little girl (who may have been 2 or 3 at the time) had another little girl. The older of the two immediately went from being the apple of her family’s eye to being the former apple of her family’s eye, the position now occupied by the baby. A while later, when the baby was already walking but not all that well, we were working on something at their house one afternoon, GF, GF’s sister, and I, and the little ones were toddling around as toddlers do, when the elder of the two gave the baby a light tap with a toddler-sized plastic bat. The other adults laughed, while I pointed out to them that they might not want to encourage that behavior. We turned back to the task at hand, and within seconds there was a loud crack and an eruption of screaming from the younger child, followed of course by maternal wrath and punishment for the older.

I don’t malign the elder of the two, and I completely understood her grief and rage — it was an honest expression of a quite predictable jealousy, since no one had bothered to integrate her into the world as just another beloved person among us all until what had been her place and her place only was usurped by this new creature.

But the “symbolic” encouragement of her mother’s and her aunt’s laughter had surely provided an answer of “go for it” to her pilot test of what response she might get to the real action.

I view complacency about the Confederate flag that way: it sends a message to those who would re-impose white supremacy with violence against people of color that they have symbolic and therefore material room to do so. In that, it is no different from flying the Nazi flag, or the various flag patches that Dylann Roof wore on his clothing. Such symbols explicitly express a will to harm categories of persons, here in the U.S. most explicitly Blacks, and it’s not news that even here women, Jews, and queers are also preferred targets. At least so it has been for my own racist family.

Symbolism isn’t separate from the actions; symbolism potentiates the actions.

The paroxysm of Confederate-flag-waving that we’re seeing now expresses a desperate desire to cling to an empty superiority that has brought nothing but horror and shame into the world, and has destroyed untold millions. I feel sorry for people who can only feel worthwhile because they can point to some other group as inferior, while the rest of us can see that if they put their energy into the growth of their own honest and worthwhile character (as in “get a life”), they might actually have a substantive basis for self-esteem and for standing with honor among their peers.

My mama used to say “everybody needs a dog to kick,” although I myself have modified that to “some people want a dog to kick,” since I don’t particularly feel a need for one (and when I find spiritual detritus of that sort in myself, I set about doing my best to correct it) and don’t really hang around with people who do.

Taking others as charity projects may make you feel like you’re doing A Good Thing, but it’s really a move of self-righteous superiority. The same applies for rescuing and remodeling other people — give it up, holier-than-thou control freaks. Who died and left you god? I am reminded of Christ’s comments on motes and beams in the Gospel of Matthew (7:3-5). None of us is perfect and most of us really only need opportunity and encouragement, which often has to be material as well as emotional and spiritual, to find our way.

But the Confederate flag, pace the romanticization and mystification of many white supremacists and “south supremacists” that I know from having grown up with that mystification, stands for two things: treason and white supremacy. Whites who had no economic or other benefit from slavery tried to secede from the Confederacy; West Virginia succeeded but Winston County, Alabama, did not. A video of an impromptu parade of vehicles flying the Confederate flag even showed one vehicle flying the Confederate battle flag higher than the U.S. flag: go ahead, ignorant fool, double-dip your treason and your cowardly attempt to bully the rest of us.

President Obama’s brilliant and moving eulogy of Clementa Pinckney, in addition to being a tour de force of Obama’s mastery of the music and structure of the African-American sermon as genre, was a refreshingly plain and clear statement of the unrighteousness, the gracelessness, the viciousness of racism, still with us in forms both great and small, and of the grace of the forgiveness offered by the families of the murdered, and of the grace of the outpouring of support for removing the Confederate flag from our public and governmental places and symbols — for the most part only ostentatiously placed on capitols and in flags during the Civil Rights Movement throughout the south, with Georgia doubling the stupidity in 2001 — which is a starting point in the conversation that we desperately need to have, or rather, as Obama noted, it is one beginning step in the actions we all need to take, since we’ve had enough conversations already.

We express how we value others in all sorts of ways: our assumptions about their abilities and competencies, our assumptions about their values and our judgments about their sexual habits, the kinds of work that we think they’re capable of, the barriers we put around them and ourselves, including barriers of distrust, disdain, and contempt.

I work in a situation in which a subtle but pervasive structural racism poisons the atmosphere for everyone, implemented by the basic criteria for work flow and the distribution of that work, and maintained by someone who probably thinks that they’re as fair-minded and non-racist as they come while at the same time blithely creating a morally degrading work environment.

She needs to think again, because she has a clear and obvious need for a dog to kick — but because I’m not a member of the aggrieved group, I have no standing to protest the injury, which, believe me, I tried to do. I find it both naive and disingenuous to think that white people aren’t affected by racism, and I consider myself to be harmed and aggrieved by white racism against the black members of our community. It is odd that only members of the aggrieved category of persons have standing to protest racist treatment, while their voices are at the same time not given credence, because of racism. A rather circular little problem.

Racism affects us all because injustice affects us all, and the dirty power we whites accrue even just from tacit support of racism sullies our own souls, and tacitly supports and encourages the kinds of violence, from institutions and from individuals like Dylann Roof, that we keep seeing over and over again.

The open season on black men by policemen cannot be chalked up only to the individuals involved, first because as policemen they represent those institutions whether in or out of uniform, and, second, because those institutions protect their own in a solidarity that excludes those of us whom they are supposed to serve, i.e. all of us in all our colors, creeds, and ways of life, who are presumed innocent until proven guilty by a jury of our peers. At a recent event discussing the pervasive murder of and violence against unarmed black men, someone (I believe the representative of the police department) stated that the police arrest the guilty — NO, NO, NO! the police arrest the accused, and the determination of guilt is not in their brief, but is in fact a violation of their duties, a claiming of power and discernment that they do not rightly possess.

Power accrued by oppressing others — men over women; whites over blacks; straights over queers; cisgender over trans — is always already dirty power, and in the ultimate balancing of those accounts, will be judged as such. It distorts the character, tempts to further violation, provokes profound bad faith, which in its turn provokes further harming of others; it empties out one’s humanity, tempts one to believe oneself infallible and to occupy what I call “the God space” of omniscience, infallibility, and obligatory instantaneous implementation of one’s will by the remainder of the world.

I have come to view the latter half of the dictum “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” (John Emerich Edward Dalberg, 1st Baron Acton, 1834–1902) as a bit of a riddle. There is in fact no “absolute” power, not here in the sublunar realm, so the very first corruption is believing that one has such power, which will be limited by time and death if by nothing else. (See this interesting and spot-on essay by Robert Aziz for a reflection on the topic:

Power is the most addictive and distorting drug, and the “war on drugs” needs to start with a campaign against the worship of it we’re suffering at present.

We need to take very seriously in all its entailments the fundamental concept that we are all children of <whatever fundamental positive force or entity that you believe is the basis of the cosmos>, with its corollary “god don’t make no junk.” Every time we violate that, in the greatest or smallest of ways, we lessen ourselves and sully our souls, and we harm, often irrevocably, other members of our human family. We are all human and must recognize that shared humanity in each other, as President Obama noted:

As the President noted, Reverend Pinckney understood that “justice grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other. That my liberty depends on you being free, too. That history can’t be a sword to justify injustice, or a shield against progress, but must be a manual for how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past — how to break the cycle. A roadway toward a better world. He knew that the path of grace involves an open mind — but, more importantly, an open heart.”

The Roman poet Terence put it “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto” (“I am a human, and I think nothing human is alien to me”), and the refrain of the wonderful Collin Raye song “Not That Different” goes like this:

I laugh, I love, I hope, I try
I hurt, I need, I fear, I cry
And I know you do the same things too
So we’re really not that different, me and you

When we relegate others to any kind of junk heap (including a gutted and betrayed educational system), which is what racism does (along with sexism and classism and homophobia, some of our other banes), we give ourselves and others permission to harm them even further, in acts of violence like the epidemic we’re living through now. A politics of hate is untenable, generally producing only further hatred.

Take the damned flag down and remove it from the state flags it was crammed into during the Civil Rights movement.

Move the statues from shared public space and put them in specific places like museums or graveyards dedicated to the history of the Confederacy.

Change the names of streets back to the names they had before they were named after the heroes of the Confederacy, or name them something else — it’s not like cities are loathe to change the names of streets willy-nilly anyway.

Maintain in our shared public spaces monuments and symbols dedicated to those who who have served rather than divided our richly diverse community and have expanded equal rights as articulated in our founding documents and congruent with our deepest values.

Remove symbols of hate that give tacit permission and encouragement to those who hate, rather than leading them from hatred into respect and justice.

It’s past time. Long past time.

P.S. Obama’s eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney is his “Gettysburg moment,” and I predict that his address will be viewed as such and enter the gallery of greatest American speeches beside Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.”

Highly recommended:

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