Of Sign, Symbol, and Culture

In 1977 I was passing through Chicago with my family (I was just finished my first year of High School), we’d gotten off the train and were wandering around downtown Chicago prior to renting a car and driving up to Wisconsin to visit grandparents (both my mother and father’s family lived south of Madison in a small town and a farm … for kids, the farm was way way more fun). There was something of a kerfuffle near city hall. Seems some KKK boys were having a parade. Do you think that parade would be allowed today? I’m doubtful.

A decade or so later, PBS had a hour long program that I recall about four small sub-cultures in retreat. French speaking Quebec and their separatist movements, the Basque, and two others which escape my memory. At the end, they had an editorial verbal essay about how cultures often go to separatism and similar gestures to maintain a cultural identity in the large wash and mix of our modern Babylon.

Seems pretty obvious that events and symbols which evoke pride in accomplishments past are one of the obvious means of doing that. Sometimes these symbols are not quite untarnished, but it seems uncharitable in the extreme that those who hold to those symbols are not remembering the good, but the bad instead. That some evil and some insane men cling to those same symbols on account of the tarnish does not change that we should remain charitable.

Hitler was not a good man. In fact, in the 20th century he was one of the top ten in the “most evil” category. However, during WWII the Wehrmacht (literally Defense Force) especially the Heer )(army) were unparalleled as a fighting force. If you consider the quality of armed services from officers to privates of any of the services in WWII that the Wehrmacht was unquestionable by a large margin far far better than the rest. It is a sign of how ashamed of Hitler’s regimes great crimes that this is not remembered positively at all in the modern era. In part that is because Germany is not, like some other cultures, in danger of losing their identity. We Westerners are somewhat puzzled when Russians want to bring back their memories of Josef Stalin, who joins Hitler in that top evil ten list; but who while he brought them so so much pain and suffering with his endless purges, mass executions, imprisonment and enslavement of his own people also lead them through a time of testing. For those who want to remember and honor him do so, in spite of his evil, but because of the great things that they in his time accomplished by modernizing their nation and surviving and overcoming by dint of pure stubbornness that superior Wehrmacht noted previously.

Similarly many in the South remember the Civil War and their brief fight for independence in the same manner. All but a few of those who would fly that flag are not concentrating on the evils of slavery but on the valor and bravery on the battlefield. They recall that they were few against many and they stood. They recall they were greatly outnumbered, had far less industry, and little commerce when compared with the Union and yet their armies fought far far better man for man, and their quality of leadership/generalship far exceeded that of the Union. Being proud of such as that is not a bad thing. It is in fact, good. Seems to me we should be charitable to those who would fly that flag are doing it for those reasons and not assume instead that they are evil or insane.

Today’s repudiation of the flag of the Confederacy is uncharitable. It is a sign that Americans, at least those in the opinion generating elite, have lost our typically enthusiasm for the stubborn underdog. It is a sign that that the liberal cultural elite no longer believe in the multi-cultural values that they used to profess.

But this is a failed essay. John Adams derided Thomas Paine as a wrecker and not a builder. He (Paine) could point out the flaws in a government and raise people to insurrection, but he was not a builder. He had no interest in suggesting a better path, of building a new better place. Like Mr Paine, this essay fails, because I don’t know how to reverse this, admittedly, horrific trend on the left, our tendency these days to exclude from conversation those ideas found wanting. How are we to return to people to can at the same time, know that slavery is wrong, but at the same time welcome men and women who want to honor their brave honorable predecessors who wore the Gray.

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6 comments

  1. Boonton says:

    Today’s repudiation of the flag of the Confederacy is uncharitable. It is a sign that Americans, at least those in the opinion generating elite, have lost our typically enthusiasm for the stubborn underdog.

    I would have thought the slaves would have been the underdog in this little analogy.

  2. Ed Darrell says:

    Southern racism is an “underdog” culture?

    Your essay’s failure is in the assumption that the Confederate battle flag is not, in fact, a symbol of racism, and a symbol intended to intimidate and harass others. You assume the symbol is purely for the honor of those who fought a gentile political struggle, and not a symbol of racist hatred.

    A few people may still naively believe the Confederacy did not fight to defend slavery. Fortunately, those few have been outvoted.

  3. Mark says:

    Ed,

    Your essay’s failure is in the assumption that the Confederate battle flag is not, in fact, a symbol of racism, and a symbol intended to intimidate and harass others.

    And your assumption is that everyone, like you, is uncharitable. Who the frack, for example, was being intimidated by the comedy series Dukes of Hazzard and their vehicle? Why was that symbol used in the show, why do you think it represented a pro-slavery position, can you cite something from the show to support that?

    Why do some Russians remember Stalin with favor, (I’d answered that above)? Do you disagree? Why can you not realize that the South fought with bravery, valor, stubbornness, and in a exemplary fashion and this symbol often just represents a memory of exactly that, no more. No less. It is your lack of charity that you assume those displaying the flag are doing so signal racism or intending to intimidate and harass.

    You should be ashamed of yourself. I thought liberals prided themselves on their empathy with others and multi-cultural awareness. Apparently this isn’t the case.

    (edited for clarity and punctuation)

  4. Mark says:

    Ed,

    A few people may still naively believe the Confederacy did not fight to defend slavery. Fortunately, those few have been outvoted.

    And (noting the Stalin/Russia) example, everybody (esp. in Russia) knows Stalin terrorized the nation, killed millions of his own people, enslaved millions more, but … they remember him because he was their leader when they fought Germany at so much cost and prevailed and in the prior decades they transformed from a backwards agrarian nation into industrial power.

    Explain in that context why they cannot/should not remember what they did well? When you teach kids and after a test or performance in which some things were done very well, and some very poorly, you should only only only remember the bad?

  5. Boonton says:

    And (noting the Stalin/Russia) example, everybody (esp. in Russia) knows Stalin terrorized the nation, killed millions of his own people, enslaved millions more, but … they remember him because he was their leader when they fought Germany at so much cost and prevailed and in the prior decades they transformed from a backwards agrarian nation into industrial power.

    Stalin terrorized but was Stalin terror for the sake of terror or was he a leader who deployed terror? Was I could understand how Russians may admire him for defeating the German invasion just as they might also see older czars as heros for defending the motherland against invasion, even though none of them were respectful of our notions of individual rights.

    But how about Hitler? People, some of whom are still alive today, fought bravely for Hitler. Yet they do not generally wear swastikas on a regular basis, not will you see many cars decked out with Nazi symbols in Germany. While we can still respect the innocent foot soldier in the German army, we cannot detach what Hitler fought for with the symbols associated with his regime. And that isn’t changed by comedies like Hogan’s Heros. While a person can believe Germany should be a strong nation, that the autobaun is a great idea, that VW made great cars in the 30’s and 40’s, that can’t change the nature of Hitler’s regime nor does it mean its symbols can be co-opted to less objectionable use.

    The ‘Noble South’ meme is unworkable IMO. The moment the South exchanged losing the war with winning a mythical past it embraced Jim Crows and segregation. The myths are just the pretty side of the coin. The ‘lost cause’, the ‘nobility’, the ‘unique culture’ were all memes used to argue for segregation and oppression by claiming the South was ‘just different’ or ‘unique’ so its cultural merit meant one had to excuse. This doesn’t mean all who picked up the Confederate flag believe the same thing but it does IMO justify deeming the Confederate flag as outside the symbols ‘polite company’ should adopt as acceptable. But I’ll grant you an exemption, if you wish, for any sequals they want to make to the Dukes of Hazzard movie.

  6. Mark says:

    Boonton,

    Stalin terrorized but was Stalin terror for the sake of terror or was he a leader who deployed terror?

    I’m a little unclear on what you mean. Did he terrorize for “it’s own sake” … the answer is probably yes, if I understand the question. You’ve read the Gulag Archipelago. What do you think the answer to that might be?

    just as they might also see older czars as heros for defending the motherland against invasion

    Here is where War and Peace does a disservice in popular bad-historical memories. Tsar Alexander didn’t just “defend” the motherland. He went on to lead the allied coalition which sacked Paris and ultimately defeated Napoleon. Our English speaking histories somewhat overplay the role of the British (in Spain mostly) in Napoleon’s defeat.

    As I said, Germany doesn’t not require (now) the cultural reassurance that recollection of their bravery and valor might demand. Ed think the South is a dominant US culture. Which you can clearly see by the predominance of Southern accents in today’s popular TV shows. Oh, wait … .never mind.

    The ‘Noble South’ meme is unworkable IMO.

    I don’t know what this means. Does it mean you reject the notion of charity? That you will assume the worst motives on a person remembering his ancestor who fought (Sheldon Foote comes to mind). Look. As I say, this is because you lack the decency and charity to not assume the worst of your fellow man without cause. Most don’t see/use that as a symbol of hate and oppression, except most (esp. liberals) see it is a symbol of the same. As I said, diversity and multiculturalism is preached but not practiced by the left.

    And regarding WWII, you find this symbol objectionable? It was a standard of the Werhmacht. Do you identify the Wehrmacht with genocide or is that the Nazi leaders and the SS?

    Tom Brokaw calls the WWII generation the “Greatest Generation” … but the Wehrmacht far outdid them in what they accomplished on the battlefield given what they had to work with and how they performed. What might he call those men?