On the menu today: a long look at how much America is wrapped up in fights about symbols . . . and how and why many prefer those fights over ones about policies and measurable real-world effects.
People Prefer Symbolic Gestures . . . Because They Are Easy
You know why people are pulling down statues of Christopher Columbus, right? Because taking action to meaningfully improve the lives of Native Americans today is hard.
Getting some ropes and pulling down a statue in some downtown park or public square is easy if you have enough people and can be done in a matter of minutes or hours. Reducing the number of Native Americans living below the poverty line, the high unemployment rate on reservations, and the high rates of substance abuse; fixing the insufficient and dilapidated housing; upgrading the Indian Health Service; or improving the lower life expectancy among Native Americans . . . that would require time, sustained effort, and actually engaging with Native-American communities. No, it’s much easier to go downtown and cosplay as a Visigoth sacking Rome.
Maybe some of these people genuinely want to help and are just directing their energies in a destructive direction instead of a constructive one. But I think a lot of these people just want to smash things and to justify it to themselves and others as an action in the name of that ever-mutable nebulous concept of “social justice.” (I’m not quite sure what “social justice” is, but because it so often involves people taking the belongings of others and destroying things that don’t belong to them, I know it is distinct from “actual justice.”)
What’s the bigger problem to the Native-American community right now? Some statues in big cities, or the fact that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has turned down tribal epidemiologists’ requests for data that it’s making freely available to states?
And under the Affordable Care Act, the centers are considered public health authorities on a par with state health departments and federal agencies such as the CDC.
But Abigail Echo-Hawk, the director of the Urban Indian Health Institute, told POLITICO that the CDC has so far rebuffed the centers’ requests — telling her only that the data is nonpublic.
Somewhere in the country today, there’s a Native-American epidemiologist reacting, saying, “Wait, the United States made a promise to Native tribes and then broke that promise? Wow, who could have seen that coming?”
Human beings love thinking about, discussing, and debating symbolism. “Can’t you see how that looks?” “It sends a bad message.” “What are people supposed to think when they see that?” On any given day, half of our news stories involve something that is legal but carries some implication or message that stirs objections in others.
Army general Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, regrets the symbolism of his participation of President Trump’s visit at St. John’s Episcopal Church. Trump himself defended that appearance in front of the church as “very symbolic.”
African-American leaders in Tulsa, Okla., contend that there is dark symbolism in President Trump kick-starting his return to public campaigning in their city — the site of an under-discussed vicious race riot and massacre in 1921 — on June 19, which is Juneteenth, a holiday marking the end of slavery in the United States. NBC News’s Chuck Todd declared, “The symbolism looks terrible, unless he’s going to Tulsa to announce he wants to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.”
Almost every four years, impassioned party activists get into Montague-and-Capulet-level fights over the words in the party’s platform, even though the platform carries no legal weight, does not bind any lawmaker to any position, and it is only read by diehard political junkies. Pro-life language in the GOP platform does not bind any Republican lawmaker to vote against abortion; the candidate’s beliefs — and fear of a primary challenge — keeps the GOP an almost entirely pro-life party. Yet ardent political activists, who care deeply about the values and direction of the party, dive into these fights because they see important symbolism in the platform.
I said almost every four years, because this year, with the GOP convention shifting in part to Jacksonville at the last minute, the party had been planning to simply re-use the 2016 platform. Unfortunately, the 2016 platform includes “more than three dozen unflattering references to either the ‘current president,’ ‘current chief executive,’ ‘current administration,’ people ‘currently in control’ of policy, or the ‘current occupant’ of the White House.” Whoops.
You probably saw that video of hundreds of white residents of Montgomery County, Md., gathering in a park, sitting and raising their arms, and participating in a ceremony to formally renounce their white privilege. Montgomery County is the 57 percent white, extremely affluent, highly educated northern suburbs of Washington, D.C., and also home to nine of the top 20 private schools in the state. One can’t help but wonder how many in that crowd who formally renounced their white privilege then walked back to their Priuses, drove back to their spacious homes in their mostly or entirely white neighborhoods, reminded their kids to finish their homework for distance learning for their top-tier private school, and spent the evening thinking about anything other than the fact that other kids in the county have to win a literal lottery to get into the public school their parents prefer.
Sure, none of these happy suburbanites’ advantages in life really changed, but they took the symbolic step of renouncing their white privilege. [Hey, if all it takes to fix racial disparity in American society is a formal renunciation ceremony, solving this is going to be easier than we thought!]
Former Clinton administration press secretary Joe Lockhart offered his own suggestion to help heal the racial tensions in Minnesota:
The situation in Minnesota right now offers a unique opportunity to deal with the symbols of racial injustice. As a small, but important step, the owners of the Minnesota Vikings, Zygi and Mark Wilf, can send a strong message by offering Colin Kaepernick a contract to play with the Vikings. Bring him into camp, treat him like any of the other players given a chance to play the game they love.
It will not solve the problem of blacks and police violence. But it will recognize the problem that Kaepernick powerfully raised, and perhaps show that, with courage, real progress can be made.
Hear that, everyone? Signing Kaepernick represents real progress!
Give Lockhart credit for coming up with a proposal that will indeed unite a lot of people — mostly the fans of the 31 other NFL teams. Despite my opposition to Kaepernick’s fondness for Fidel Castro and other provocative statements, I’ve sort of itched for some team to give him a shot. Let’s see if he can still play. Vehemently disagree with the guy, boo him, cheer every time he’s sacked, but don’t end the guy’s career just because he’s got nutty opinions and makes offensive statements. This league had room for Lyle Alzado, Lawrence Taylor, Jim McMahon, Chad Ochocinco, Pacman Jones, Jack Tatum . . . I’m sure you can think of others. Hell, O. J. Simpson retains his standing invitation to attend the annual Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremonies. I guess the league just can’t bring itself to snub Simpson’s unforgettable slashing style.
Right now, in many eyes, particularly African-American eyes, Kaepernick is the martyr, the talented star who had his career derailed by white owners who couldn’t handle him speaking truth to power. If he’s in some team’s uniform, and turns in some preseason performances of going three for eleven for 18 yards, a fumble, two sacks, and an interception, NFL fans of all colors will acknowledge, “okay, whatever he’s saying, teams aren’t playing him for a reason, he’s just not that good anymore.” (When Kaepernick’s tryouts go off the rails, one can’t help but wonder if the quarterback is consciously or subconsciously sabotaging himself.)
This isn’t to say symbolism is never important.
Will Congress force the administration into signing a bill that calls for renaming about a dozen bases named after Confederate military leaders? As noted yesterday, most Americans probably had no idea that John Bell Hood, Braxton Bragg, and Henry Lewis Benning fought on the Confederate side. Clearly, these names haven’t deterred African Americans from participating in the U.S. military; both black men and black women are proportionally overrepresented in the Armed Forces. Nothing about the bases would change, other than the names on the signs. But the symbolism is important to people; it’s easy to picture an African-American soldier wondering why the base he works at is named after a man who fought to ensure he would not be given his full rights as an American.
The world is a mess. Our problems are complicated, multifaceted, interlocking, more tangled up than the Christmas lights in the attic. Racial disparities are most visibly manifested in poverty, which is exacerbated by insufficient opportunity, which is tied into poor education systems, and aggravated by substance abuse, which increases the likelihood of violence and gangs flourishing in African-American communities, which increases the number of confrontations with police, which leads to higher rates of incarceration among African-American men, which leave lots of children without fathers in the home, and when those men are released, their criminal record makes it more difficult to get a job to support a family, which worsens the level of poverty . . .
Every solution requires trade-offs and will have unforeseen consequences. Consensus is difficult to build and delicate when it’s established, enacting a solution requires patience, determination, and willingness to adjust in face of setbacks, and bad faith actors are plentiful.
As Kevin Williamson observed, “everything looks simple when you don’t know the first thing about it.”
But symbolism? Man, that stuff’s easy. No wonder so many people prefer to focus upon that.
ADDENDA: Speaking of renaming things associated with the Confederacy, Justin reminds me that back in 2015, I asked, “Anyone call for the banning of “Lady Antebellum” yet?”
The band itself announced Thursday that they will now be called, “Lady A.”
Your move, Dixie Chicks.