Overdosing on Symbolism

On reorienting the politics of reform towards the substantive

Ben Burgis
Jun 25, 2020 · 10 min read
Mark Antony statue in Vienna, Austria. (Gerhard Trumler/Imagno/Getty)

A friend recently sent me some screenshots from his neighborhood Facebook group. Everyone there was outraged that the local beer place hadn’t issued any sort of statement condemning police violence and expressing solidarity with Black Lives Matter.

The website of the establishment in question mentions “a grassy backyard,” brags about the number of taps, and assures us that the bartenders are “friendly.” Since New York is still shut down fairly tightly as the pandemic rages, the backyard and the taps are no longer relevant and most of the friendly bartenders have presumably been sent home. It looks like they’re still selling bottles of beer to takeout customers, but that’s about it. Let’s call it Generic Neighborhood Beer Place (GNBP).

It’s true that GNBP hasn’t said anything about George Floyd, the disturbingly violent tactics used by police around the country to quash both rioters and law-abiding protesters, or the Black Lives Matter movement.

It also hasn’t said anything about any other subject in the last two months.

The most recent post on GNBP’s website (“Stay safe out there”) was from March 15th.

The Mark Antony Principle

In one of my favorite scenes in the HBO show Rome, Caesar has just been assassinated by a conspiracy of senators. Mark Antony, who is now the presumptive leader of Caesar’s faction, is engaged in tense negotiations with the conspirators about what will happen next. Will Caesar be officially proclaimed a tyrant, making the conspirators’s actions retroactively legal, or will they be declared murderers and enemies of the state? Or will the Senate find some way to avoid having to commit to either course of action?

A couple of the conspirators start bragging that “the best elements” of the city have already sent messages of support. Warming to the theme, Brutus lists off some of these elements, including “the pontiffs” and “the Lictors’s Guild.” “Oh,” Antony replies. “The Lictors’s Guild! Very good. Only rally the bakers and the flute-players and you can put on a festival.”

Let’s call that the Mark Antony Principle. Don’t mistake the makings of a festival for a coalition with meaningful power.

My own employer, Georgia State University, has spammed the inboxes of faculty and students with repeated statements from high-level administrators taking long and fluffy paragraphs to express the thought that Racism is Bad.

I wondered at the time why they bothered. There may well be concrete steps that GSU could take on these issues. The university has its own in-house police department. If they found some way to meaningfully reform that institution, it might be a drop in the bucket as far as the larger problem goes, but I’m sure those those of us in the university community who are concerned about the grotesque imbalance of power between police and ordinary citizens in American society would enthusiastically welcome any such effort. But I took it for granted that the existence or non-existence of an email going through the motions of performing awareness that a social problem existed would be met with universal indifference.

Now I’m not so sure.

The Facebook users’s wrath toward GNBP isn’t an isolated example or even a particularly extreme one. Theater producer Marie Cisco went as far to create a public Google spreadsheet of theaters “not speaking out.” When she first created it, anyone could edit it. Apparently belatedly realizing that an open-source denunciation list invites abuse by its nature, it’s since been locked and a message on the top of the list now claims that “trained” individuals are auditing names that were previously placed there.

Even putting aside the obvious concern that theater directors allegedly “not speaking out” could be publicly named and shamed by anonymous members of the theater community interested in settling scores unrelated to Black Lives Matter, the circulation of the list is a deeply strange exercise.

Does anyone think a mayor or police chief in any city in America is going to be influenced by a statement from a local theater director to ban chokeholds or put a stop to no-knock raids?

Given that there are 535 members of Congress, I suppose it’s possible that there are one or two who regularly attend plays in 2020 — or who did so before every theater in the country shut its doors due to the pandemic. Perhaps those one or two are even right-wing Republicans who oppose measures like ending the sale of surplus military gear to civilian police departments. The idea that such congressmen would see that the director of some D.C. theater where they attended a really interesting revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Under the Palms last year put out a #BlackLivesMatter statement and in response decided to change their votes strikes me as fairly improbable. Demanding that the theaters contribute some of their revenue to bail funds for arrested protesters might do at least a small amount of good in the real world. It’s a lot harder to see the point of the statements.

“Only rally the bakers and the flute-players and you can put on a festival.”

The question is: Are the Mario Ciscos and the GNBP customers of the world failing to observe the Mark Antony Principle? If not, why do they care whether this or that inconsequential purveyor of craft beer or stage drama goes through the motions of this particular public relations exercise?

Adolph Reed and the Toppled Statues

Adolph Reed, Jr. is one of the most interesting and insightful writers on the contemporary socialist left. He grew up in New Orleans, and he came back to the city in 2017 as his mother was dying. As he wrote in an essay at the time, this means that he was around for the long overdue removal of city’s “four most conspicuous” statues of Confederate traitors.

As a black man who grew up in the South during the Jim Crow era, Reed has no attachment to such monuments. Indeed, he spends most of the essay demolishing the myth that the Confederate insurrection was about anything other than slavery and documenting the fact that the statues went up in the first place less to commemorate the Civil War than to make an extremely ugly statement about the politics of the era in which they were erected.

What Reed calls the most “openly noxious” of the four, the Liberty Monument, was built in 1891 “to commemorate the uprising perpetrated 14 years earlier by the explicitly white supremacist Crescent City White League against the interracial Metropolitan police force and the Reconstruction government.” An inscription added in 1932 “lauded the insurrection for having installed a government elected by ‘the white people’ and praised the 1876 election that ‘recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state.’”

This week, as similar statues of Confederate villains (or of Christopher Columbus, who can be called without exaggeration the Hitler of Hispaniola) have been vandalized by protesters or removed by city governments around the country, I’ve seen some on the right invoking a line in George Orwell’s 1984. The dystopian novel features a detail about statues and street names being changed by the fictional totalitarian government of Oceania in order to erase history and leave nothing but “an endless present.” Reed’s essay should be required reading for anyone who thinks that analogy is apt. (I’d also like to ask those who invoke Orwell whether they think the people of Budapest were guilty of an insidious Orwellian act of erasing history when they toppled their city’s giant Stalin statue during the revolution of 1956.) Even so, it’s interesting that Reed ends by expressing reservations about the limits of the historical moment represented by the removal of the statues:

The city is unquestionably better for having been ridden of the monuments and public commemoration of both the mythology and the actual history they validate. … We should celebrate the victory and move on energetically and aggressively to support objectives like expanding unionization of the city’s hospitality sector, which will do more to improve the lives of New Orleanians of whatever race, identity and claimed heritage than removal of all the objectionable statuary, rededication of all the objectionable street names, and all the celebrations diversity in the city combined.

The cause the Confederates fought for lost, and thank God for that. Similarly, the cause the White League fought for in its 1876 uprising has been consigned to the trash heap of history. Even if these victories have been incomplete in important ways, basic civic and legal rights for Americans of all races are here to stay. The deeper problem is that the structures of American capitalism make it difficult to undo the long-term economic effects of Jim Crow, Federal Housing Administration redlining, and the rest.

To pick one of many disturbing statistics, black families headed by college graduates have less on average than white families headed by high school dropouts. There are many proximate causes of this reality, one of the most obvious is that white people who attend college are more likely to have already-successful relatives who can pay their tuition and are thus less likely to graduate saddled with the kind of student-loan debt that can do much to wipe out whatever increase in wealth might otherwise be purchased by educational attainment and the upward mobility that can come with it. All of these causes ultimately point to the historically unequal distribution of poverty generated by America’s history of de jure racial apartheid.

Just as it’s natural that those who prefer to live in denial about this are likely to cling to statues commemorating those figures who’ve played the worst role in that history, it’s natural that those who would prefer to move toward the inextricably linked goals of economic justice and ending racial disparities in life outcomes celebrate their removal. But doing something about the underlying problem requires the sort of left-wing economic program at which Reed gestures with his example about unionizing the New Orleans hospitality industry. That’s why it might be worth pausing to wonder how much we should care about the monuments.

One reason it’s exciting to see such statues being toppled is that, especially in combination with scenes like the burning of the police station in Minneapolis’s Third Precinct, much of this looks on the surface like what you might expect to see during a revolution.

It’s sobering to remember that no such revolution is occurring.

The recent unrest has spurred a few useful reforms, mostly on the local level. The underlying issue, though, goes a lot deeper. While bias by police officers no doubt quite often plays a role — who “looks threatening” can matter a great deal in decisions about the use of force — the larger reality is that militarized policing is a problem for poor people of all races. The most important reason it’s disproportionately a problem for black people is that the ugly history of racial hierarchy in America means that poverty is distributed in a wildly unequal way between the races.

As documented by insightful social critics like Cedric Johnson, the turn toward a more aggressive regime of policing and incarceration starting in the 1970s has its roots in a widespread understanding that this strategy for managing social problems was both financially and politically less costly than expanding America’s always miserly welfare state with new redistributive policies. Reversing course on all of that is vastly harder than racking up symbolic victories on issues like statues and “statements of solidarity.”

Symbols Matter — But How Much?

This point could easily be taken too far. That we should care less about statues and street names than about the social structures they represent is clear enough, but asking human beings not to care at all about symbolism would be unrealistic. We’re a narrative species.

In one of the underappreciated gems of Christopher Hitchens’s bibliography, his 1990 pamphlet The Monarchy: A Critique of Britain’s Favorite Fetish, he responds to the claim that the monarchy is unobjectionable because the royal family doesn’t interfere in British politics in several ways. Besides pointing out examples in the 20th century when there has been unambiguous interference, and reveling in the contradiction between the equally common royalist claims that the monarchy has no political power and that they use “what power they have” for good causes, he argues that the underlying claim that they don’t interfere “in politics” fundamentally makes no sense. “It is a paltry definition of a nation’s ‘political’ life,” Hitch says, “that does not include the customary, the tribal, the ritualistic, and the commemorative.”

I take his point. It’s unreasonable to think that any human society will be so indifferent to symbolism that the question of which stories it collectively tells itself about its past won’t be part of its political debate. And as Reed says, we’re “unquestionably better off” for removing public monuments to monsters.

But when we go beyond removing statues and changing street names and start doing things like removing objectionable old movies from streaming services — an act of corporate paternalism that would annoy leftists if so much of the left weren’t hyper-focused on putting a plus wherever white reactionaries put a minus — or demanding that beer gardens and theater companies make the emptiest of empty gestures, it seems clear that we’ve developed an unhealthy obsession with the symbolic dimension of the problem.

Because, on some level, the GNBP customers and Marie Cisco-type activists don’t believe that they even can do anything about the underlying power structures that generate horrors like the death of George Floyd — an unemployed worker who was choked to death by agents of the state after being accused of trying to pay for cigarettes with a forged $20 bill.

Changing the economic power structure of our society, and hence correcting the racial disparities perpetuated by that structure, is an immensely difficult task. But it’s a much more important one than shaming some random bar or theater owner into mumbling the right words about black lives. We can make statements about what’s going on in the world all day long. But as my favorite 19th-century German philosopher said, the point is to change it.

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Ben Burgis

Written by

Ben Burgis is a philosophy instructor at Georgia State University Perimeter College and the host of the Give Them An Argument podcast and YouTube channel.

Arc Digital

The internet’s best opinion page

Ben Burgis

Written by

Ben Burgis is a philosophy instructor at Georgia State University Perimeter College and the host of the Give Them An Argument podcast and YouTube channel.

Arc Digital

The internet’s best opinion page

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