Confronted with a fellow student's admiration of the confederate flag, I've began to think about symbolism. Now, there's books upon books upon books written about symbolism so my ideas on this subject are hardly necessary but, in the words of another infamous boor-- frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.
To the unapologetic southerner the confederate flag represents the fight against tyranny, heroism, and the defence of their valued traditions. To most African Americans the confederate flag represents an infuriating promotion of the heritage which historically enslaved, segregated, and depreciated their humanity.
The League of the South's website argues that the confederate flag is a symbol just like the Celtic cross is a symbol and that both symbols are used by racist groups to promote their hate. The argument is that while the Celtic cross is not often viewed as hateful (unless it is tattooed onto the burly arm of a snarling bald-headed inmate) the confederate flag is viewed as hateful, which doesn't promote the just equality we should impose upon symbols.
I'm reminded of the continuing debate over the swastika. The swastika is a symbol which is over 3,000 years old and has been used to symbolize good luck, life, love, power, and the sun. Ancient swastikas can be found in New Zealand, America, Japan, China, India, southern Europe, England, Greece, and southeast Asia. The word swastika comes from the sanskrit svastika which means "to be good/well/fortunate." The Finnish Air Force, and the American 45th division used the symbol until WWII (for obvious reasons.) Rudyard Kipling employed the swastika on his coat of arms, Carlsberg beer had it prominently displayed on its label, Jackie Kennedy wore a sweater with the swastika on it (conspiracy theorists . . . eat that up!), and Tsar Nicholas II's daughters embroidered lucky swastikas on their scarves before they were executed in 1917. Apparently there was at various times Canadian hockey teams named the swastikas. There's even a town in northern Ontario called Swastika. In an ironic juxtaposition, one can apparently find an ancient Jewish grave with a Swastika carved into it.
Unfortunately for the swastika, German nationalists appropriated the symbol from the Aryans of northern India as a claim to direct descension from the Aryans. The symbol came into common use in a large variety of places throughout Germany for nationalistic and anti-semitic purposes. In 1920, when Hitler needed a symbol for the Nazi party the swastika was an obvious choice. Clearly the symbol was something which could be used to stir fire in the German people's souls.
The swastika may have had a long history before WWII but Hitler truly corrupted the world's perception of the symbol into something truly abominable. The statues dedicated to the founding fathers of American towns and etched with the swastika were now looked on with horror, the government tried to impose a new name on the town of Swastika in Ontario, and wherever people saw this symbol they were reminded of the great horror which Nazism had brought.
So should we go about waving the swastika proudly about our heads and declaring that it is merely a good luck symbol? I'm not convinced. While we can perhaps understand the Hindus, Buddhists, and indigenous tribes which still use this symbol, I believe the reinstatement of the swastika is a long time coming in the West. The best policy is to be sensitive to the deep-seated feelings of those who suffered under the Nazi regime.
Now, it's a certainty that the confederate flag has not resulted in the same level of bile among Western society as the swastika, but I believe the same degree of sensitivity should be applied. What does a confederate flag rally do but stir up anger? If southerners are so eager to celebrate their anglo-celtic heritage why don't they use a picture of the celtic cross or a leprechaun? Yes, the confederate flag is not intended to symbolize hate, but to many it does.