Peter G (sinetimore) wrote,
Peter G

How Do You Solve A Problem Like The General Lee?

"Symbols are given power by people. Alone, a symbol is meaningless, but with enough people, blowing up a building can change the world."
-- V
V For Vendetta

The real outrage began when Warner Bros., which owns the rights to The Dukes Of Hazzard TV show, said they would no longer license the General Lee for toys because of the Confederate rebel flag.  Seems Dylann Roof, instead of inspiring people to rally around the rebel flag, has only made them want to burn it to ashes then burn the ashes.

Note to readers:  there is a reason I am referring to "the Confederate rebel flag" and "the rebel flag" and refusing to identify it as "the Conferate flag."  I live in an area with Civil War re-enactors.  I don't understand their fascination with re-enacting the Civil War (you don't see us Poles re-enacting the Warsaw Uprising on a lazy Sunday afternoon), but whatever.  The key thing is that they will take great pains to point out that the actual Confederate flag, the one that represented the government, is different from the rebel flag.  There were three total, and the first was very reinicient of the American flag.  The subsequent two incorporated the rebel flag in the top left corner.  But the bottom line is, the rebel flag was supposed to be a symbol of battle, not government.  This has come back to bite the Southern pride movement in the butt, but it is important to keep in mind as we explore this.

In many ways, the American South has had a very tragic history, and they claim, quite rightly, that they don't get a lot of respect.  NASA has a satellite view of the Earth 24 hours a day.  If you ever look at it in the middle of the night in America, you can see parts of the country still lit thanks to electric lights.  Most of the South is dark.  Electric lights, Internet, a lot of basic conveniences the rest of the country just assumes is there are not.  The result is a general siege mentality among Southerners.  And if you watch TV, it's easy to understand why.  Look at Saturday Night Live and MAD TV.  When either show needs some group to make fun of, they invariably reach for Southerners.  A TV show, The Real Beverly Hillbillies, was pitched and produced, the premise of which was to take a backwoods Southern family, put them in a modern Beverly Hills house, then laugh at them as they are dazzled by our evolved modern lives.  Despite the fact that country music has its talent development down to a science (there's a reason rockers like Exile and Eddie Money and Darius Rucker made the jumpt to country) and in fact, country music has seen its music sales consistently climb while rock and pop blame piracy instead of homogenization for people no longer buying, no one cares about country music and its economics.  The Birmingham, Alabama school district was one of the first in the nation to give each of their students a laptop computer for homework and research during the school year.  The only use most people have for the South is a convenient target to pick on and make fun of.  Take it from me -- a lot of Southern "jokes" are just Polish jokes with the regional targets changed.

The South realized there was an image problem with Illinois Senator Carol Mosely Braun successfully blocked the Daughters Of The Confederacy from resecuring trademark protection on their logo because it featured the rebel flag.  The charity, which I understand does a lot of good work, protested that the rebel flag was "heritage, not hatred."  This gave rise to Southerners trying to keep the rebel flag from being thrown on the trash heap of history.  Now, thanks to Roof, everybody wants the rebel flag gone.  And Southerners are protesting that people do not understand the rebel flag is not supposed to be racist, and there's an Orwellian effort to eradicate the flag from the world.

Southerners, I sympathize with you.  Really, I do.  I understand where you are coming from and why you say what you do.  But there's one problem -- you don't control the symbolism of the flag, popular consciousness does.  And right now, the rebel flag will not be allowed to mean what you want it to mean.  You are victims of something that happens all the time.

Consider, if you will, the word "clout".  Every political wonk uses "clout" to mean "political currency" -- you got a lot of clout, you can call in political favors and change bills and bring in pork barrel projects and so on.  But the word "clout" is a Chicago creation, and it's original use was for a political fixer.  "You got that state road contract?  Who's your clout?"  "You're supposed to be doing a nickel and you're out already?  Who's your clout?"  And this change in the popular understanding of the word transpired in less than a decade.

And this also applies to symbols.  Symbols can be so infused with negative connotations that their original meaning is lost on all but those most devout practitioners of the culture.  Consider, if you will, the Wheel Of Life.  You'll find it all over the Southwest, particularly in Hopi Indian territory.  The Norse use it as a symbol of Odin.  In Japan, it is called a "manji" and is used around Buddhist temples -- in America, if you look at a map and see a cross, it usually means there's a church there.  In Japan, if you look at a map and see a manji, it usually means there's a temple there.  Symbol of healing and peace and religion, right?

Well, Hitler saw the Wheel Of Life and thought it would make a dandy symbol for the Nazi party, calling it a swastika (which, I note with interest, is a Sandskrit word instead of German).  Since then, the Wheel Of Life is so loaded with meaning that people automatically react and nothing can sway their conclusions.  Pokemon cards from Japan get the artwork changed before the US release if it features a manji or even skip it entirely even if the context is correct. Around the turn of the century, the third wave ska band The Booked released an album called Feel The Pride, the cover of which featured a little girl holding the American flag while standing on a Nazi flag.  The band, the record label, everyone tried telling people that, because standing on a flag is disrespectful, the image is slamming the rise of racist subcultures and affirming America as a land of freedom.  No good, stores refused to carry the disc because they were afraid people would see the image and freak out.  Only a few stores carried it, everyone else had to order direct from the manufacturer.

And now, the rebel flag is caught in the upheaval of cultural redefinition.  So much so that a design for a car on a show that was anti-racist (the Duke boys had helped blacks who were being railroaded by Boss Hogg and didn't make a big deal of it, they were just people in a bind that they could help) and is supposed to represent The Spirit Of The South is now considered anathema.  I loved the Dukes Of Hazzard myself (lots of people are.  Do a Google search, and you won't find a reference to the person General Lee until you are halfway through the results.  Almost everything else is the car), but this is what the situation is.  Too many people have long misused the rebel flag, making it a fashion symbol or some poorly thought out political statement (I'm thinking of college students who display the rebel flag like they do pictures of Mao or Che Guevera, completely missing that those guys weren't exactly Boy Scouts).  The actual meaning of the symbol has been amorphous for years because nothing is trendier than manufactured rebeliousness.  Every time I see someone wearing a T-shirt with the anarchy symbol screenprinted on to it, I want to slap them upside the head for not understanding what is so wrong about it.  People want a shorthand, history just gets in the way.

Unfortunately, the rebel flag has not meant heritage among the general populous ever, it was just a way to seem edgy without buying overpriced clothes, to be a nonconforming conformist.  Now, the party's over, someone OD'ed, and everyone is trying to clean up the mess and keep it from happening again.  Can the rebel flag ever mean heritage instead of hate?  I don't know.  But at this moment?  I hate to say it, but you guys are fighting a losing battle.  And it will remain lost until the scars Roof opened heal over.

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