Statue enthusiasts stand down; beware “Gestures as Solutions.”
There are always those who benefit, or think they do, from a widespread belief that a problem has been solved…When [that] number of people is large or they occupy strategic positions, a regime has a strong incentive to depict as a solution any development that is associated with the problem linguistically, logically, or in fantasy.
Back in 2015, a girlfriend and I were in a heated argument over the Confederate Flag (CNN). I held that the flag was a symbol, and taking it down wouldn’t accomplish anything real. “Sure, take the flag down, but don’t let that punctuate the movement,” I said. Taking a flag or monument down is a Gesture, not a Solution to a Problem.
There are real systemic problems of inequality, from for-profit prisons, debt-slavery and racist drug laws, to mandatory minimum sentencing, biased policing, and etc.
Though I felt I was sincere — such momentum across racial, political, socioeconomic, et al. divides could be used to effect change by challenging institutions and not their flags (or monuments)— I came off as indifferent to racist symbols. Perhaps I was in this case, thinking the protests would accomplish little. After all, the S.C. flag issue is back (CNN), we elected Trump, and white nationalism is now shamelessly on display nationwide.
By 2016, as an undergrad, I somewhat conceded in a long-winded piece (scroll down to “Confederate Heritage Month reminds us: It’s not about the flag”). Though it wasn’t explicit, I intimated that there are bigger issues where we could more directly fight inequality. I attempted to trace a link between the symbol and its racist underpinnings.
Why do I offer these anecdotes? Because history is cyclical. In fact, in his book, Edelman “treats the contemporary political spectacle as a set of symbols and signifiers that continuously construct and reconstruct self-conceptions, the meanings of past events, expectations for the future, and the significance of prominent social groups.” This offers a new perspective for how history is cyclical, and it is very apparent with this debate over monuments and flags.
Where the Confederate Flag was a symbol in some confused discourse, the ongoing monument debate has emerged with more real and more confused implications.
Considering the “Construction of Political Enemies” here (Edelman 1988, Ch. 4), being the “alt-right nationalists vs. Antifa,” polarization is rampant and more real than ever. It is hyperreal. While this tension isn’t new, (see, for example, “The 'Confederate Flag' Never Called Me a N — er: But Blacks and Liberals Have”) the violent confrontation at least marks a new chapter for the battle over and against symbols.
In conclusion, I propose that we ask, “Who stands to benefit from all this infighting?” We can take down a flag or monument that symbolizes inequality and oppression. Absolutely. But at what cost? We shouldn’t get encumbered by the Political Spectacle, which exists to do just that, to distract us.
Burying a symbol doesn’t defeat an ideology or undermine oppressive institutions, as we saw in Charlottesville. Decades after defeating the KKK and Nazism we see and hear symbols of those ideologies today.
Though the solution isn’t doing nothing, beware Gestures as Solutions. Bringing down a flag or monument won’t defeat inequality and racism, and viciously fighting over such symbols can only distract from the true form, or true means of combating these problems. If we’re too busy fighting over a statue, we’re not fighting the real Authority they represent.
The only people who benefit from chaotic infighting among protest groups are the oppressors who aren’t themselves being confronted.