Tiffany Jenkins: Flagging up dangers of symbolism

There have been calls for the Confederate flag to be taken down from the South Carolina state Capitol building. Picture: Getty
There have been calls for the Confederate flag to be taken down from the South Carolina state Capitol building. Picture: Getty
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Fixating on an image or a piece or cloth fluttering in the wind prevents the real issues being tackled, writes Tiffany Jenkins

There is one image from the most recent Iraq War that stands out, that’s memorable. When, during the 2003 invasion, a statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square, Baghdad, was pulled down, apparently by jubilant Iraqi people, the toppling of the statue made the front pages around the world.

The striking image seemed to reflect the amazing change sweeping the country: the reign of the vile dictator was over. The US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld, told reporters: “The scenes of free Iraqis celebrating in the streets, riding American tanks, tearing down the statues of Saddam Hussein in the centre of Baghdad are breathtaking. Watching them, one cannot help but think of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Iron Curtain.”

Soon after the statue of Saddam hit the ground, its felling was criticised as having been orchestrated by the Americans. Commentators observed that the large crowd of cheering people may have been exaggerated. Footage showed that just before the statue was taken down, a US soldier had climbed up and draped it with an American flag. When that went down badly with the Iraqi people, who didn’t take to the expression of American triumphalism, the stars and stripes was taken off, and the soldiers helped the people remove the statue of Saddam: an American sergeant provided the sledgehammer with which it was toppled, and an Iraqi flag.

The problem with this toppling was that it really did sum up the invasion, which was always more symbolic than real. It was hollow. Sure, the actual man, Saddam, and his government was removed, and few lament that loss, but why and what replaced the dictator remains uncertain to this day. The invasion of Iraq seems to have been driven by propaganda interests, by appearances and symbolism. It was more about showing that the countries which made up the coalition forces – the US and Britain in particular - were doing something about terrorism, and about tackling supposed evil, than a necessary battle over clear interests. And that has been destructive.

This is the problem with focusing on images. They are not unimportant – they mean something, they embody ideas, offensive beliefs, sometimes. But if they are the only focus for politics and protest, the attention paid to them can be a major distraction from other issues.

And yet the pulling down of statues, an obsession with symbols, continues apace. The Islamic State is at it: smashing statues, destroying ancient sites for the camera. In South Africa, colonial or apartheid era monuments and statues have recently been vandalised and targeted by misplaced fury. The battle over statues began when a student at the University of Cape Town threw a bucket of human excrement over the figure of Cecil Rhodes because it was seen as a symbol of white supremacy. The old colonialist has since been taken down. It is likely others monuments will fall. But South Africa will remain a deeply divided and unequal country.

Now the murder of nine people at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, in the US, has triggered a vicious debate about the place of the flag in US culture, which started with calls to take down the Confederate flag from the South Carolina state capitol building. Concern has been extended to the use of the flag everywhere.

Hillary Clinton intervened on Tuesday when she said the flag was a “symbol of our racist past”. Retailers have piled in. US companies, including Walmart and Amazon, have banned the sale of any Confederate flag merchandise. Apple has pulled Civil War wargames, explaining this is “because it includes images of the confederate flag used in offensive and mean-spirited ways”. There are even calls for the removal of all symbols of the Confederacy from parks, buildings, shops, internet shopping sites, and license plates.

There are good reasons to be uncomfortable with the use of Confederate flag. The suspect in the shootings, Dylann Roof, appeared in photographs holding the flag, and the flag was a symbol for the southern states fighting the Civil War as they sought to break away from the union. It is still associated with those who supported slavery and racism. It’s also understandable that after such a terrible tragedy, when there is an urgent desire to do something, that the flag has become a focus. And I have no problem with it being taken down – no institution of the US government should fly a flag that symbolises slavery and independence from national rule. Just don’t go overboard. But that is exactly what is happening.

It is striking how quickly the flag came to be the defining issue, in response to this heinous act, as well as the people who identity with it, who fly it – rather than Dylann Roof, gun control, or wider social inequalities. The reaction is overkill. It is hysterical.

The Confederate flag didn’t kill those people. Nor did those who cling to this flag, for whatever reason. And people who fly it, wear it, or buy stuff with its image, do not warrant the extreme hate directed at them. That too can be dangerous: it seems to imply that all white Southerners who sport this flag are racist, that they are like Roof. But it is Dylann Roof who pulled the trigger.

It is not possible to erase all of these symbols and images. The past cannot be wiped out this way, and nor should it. But that is what some want to do.

Symbols, flags such as this one, are not straightforward. They don’t always retain their original meanings. For some, the Confederate flag honours family members who fought in the American Civil War. It is flown in southern Italy and at Swedish car shows. It is also used by neo-Nazis in Europe, who cannot use the swastika because it is banned by law, which shows that banning images doesn’t easily eradicate the sentiment they express.

There are far more important things to fixate on than a piece of cloth. We should not be diverted from tackling serious problems by symbols fluttering in the wind.