Charleston: Symbols and Fell Deeds

charleston confederate flag

Like many of you I woke up on the 18th of June to news of the horrific events in Charleston. What was so shocking about the killings was not just the brutal and callous nature of the acts themselves, something about them seemed remote and surreal, like a revival of atrocities past, which no doubt was what the murderer intended. It reminded me of studying the civil rights movement in my teenage years: lynchings, assassinations and savage beatings. The strangeness was compounded when I saw a photo of Dylan Roof wearing what is, for me and other South Africans, both a distant but familiar symbol: the oranje, wit en blou of the old Apartheid-era flag. I quipped at the time that a deranged American racist associating himself with white South Africans is the ultimate “umm…he’s not with us” moment, but even that gives his conceit too much credit: the notion of that flag having any resonance for the identity of most white South Africans.

An interesting debate has since emerged about the meaning, implications and display of symbols. Unlike the old Confederate flag, of which this lunatic was also apparently quite fond, the old South African flag does not enjoy widespread acceptability in polite society. By and large the only places you will see it displayed are in history museums or among a minority of militant nationalists like the AWB (Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging or Afrikaner Resistance Movement) who, despite occasional disproportionate coverage in the foreign (particularly British) media are, in terms of proportionality, the equivalent of mountain survivalist cults in the USA. The significance of symbols is a hot topic here in South Africa following the Rhodes Must Fall debacle in which a group of students lobbied successfully for the removal of a statue of the erstwhile Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, Cecil Rhodes, from the University Campus. Despite the seemingly ever-expanding remit of this movement to anything even marginally associated with the colonial era (including, at one point, a World War  memorial and a monument to fallen war horses in my home town of Port Elizabeth) no effort has been necessary to remove that flag from the public square.

As I am not an American, I cannot fully engage with the equivalent debate around the continuing use of the Confederate flag, both among individuals and as part of the state flag of Mississippi, as well as the continuing presence of statues to Confederate generals and other figures from the time. At best I can say it does seem more complicated than Southerners’ attachment to the symbol being a simple expression of their inherent racism in every case. The American Civil war divided a nation, pitted state against state and the confederates were not only fighting for their right to keep slaves (though it would be naïve to suggest that was not a primary political and economic motivator). I can understand how descendants of men who fought on the Confederate side might object to being made to feel ashamed of their ancestor’s part in it, given the complex historical context and provincial loyalties that run through the history of that war.

But where the otherwise culturally significant debate starts to go off-track, is when the actions of a clearly disturbed young man, so horribly bizarre as to appear to have come out of a time-warp, are blamed on the systematic and characteristic racism of an entire vast and diverse nation, or even an entire civilisation. I have seen arguments emerging recently suggesting the fact that Roof has largely been considered a “lone wolf” is indicative of the free pass Western society gives white racist murderers and the society that gives rise to them, a courtesy allegedly not extended to radical Islamist cults (though whoever made that claim clearly did not follow the groundswell of dithering and equivocation that followed the terrorist attacks in France and Scandinavia).

One of the more absurd expressions of this I have seen so far was an article in The Guardian by Lindy West condemning America as a racist society but focusing primarily on a gaff by the clothing retailer Zara. She goes as far as to condemn a T-shirt bearing the slogan “white is the new black” – it should be obvious to anyone even marginally familiar with fashion tropes that anyone decrying this as symptomatic of deeply ingrained racism is actively seeking offence and division. While America is emerging from a racially divisive century, much like South Africa, and still dealing with the consequences of that, to issue a blanket condemnation of the entire society as inherently racist is simply inflammatory rhetoric.

But here is the crux: whether or not this murderer was suffering from a mental illness or was otherwise disturbed (I take leave to doubt he was of entirely sound mind, but that does not excuse his actions) he was a hateful reactionary in the truest sense. Reactionaries crave a return to an imagined glorious past, often pinning the blame for its demise on a particular group. This is the mind-set of neo-Nazis, Islamists or, in South Africa, the AWB. America, like South Africa, is still emerging from its past, but what the ideology of these fanatics does not accurately mirror, is the world as it is now. To claim that actions such as these are reflective of or intrinsic to an entire modern civilisation is to grant them far too much credibility. It is the progress we have made that enrages reactionaries and that is what they wish to reverse.

Featured Image Credit: “The Civil War Art of Mort Kunstler”. Source

Robin has a background in the UK, South Africa, and the Middle-East. A keen follower of international current affairs, he holds a Masters degree in Global and Comparative Politics. He is a contributing editor to On Netflix Now. Follow him on Twitter @Robin_GJ