You often hear that we have problematic symbols laced throughout our society. That’s incorrect — we have a problem where left-wing tastemakers own a monopoly on interpreting the meaning that a symbol has.
While you may be familiar that liberals can just see the truth of the matter that us simpletons can’t, you’d hope this “superpower” to dissect our symbols would cause them to make better ones.
But they aren’t, leading to people becoming apathetic to the names and figures we celebrate.
Ironically, this knack for assessing the deeper meaning of everything comes from modern art. In the early 20th century, artists began abandoning aesthetically pleasing artworks in favor of pieces that inspired intense brainstorming over the purpose of the piece.
Art became about evoking a reaction. Do Jackson Pollock’s paintings make you connect with its raw expression, chuckle at its absurdity, or angry at its mischievousness?
If it’s any of those, then the artist (and their fans) will say the piece made its point. You felt something while looking at the painting, and that’s what will stick with you long after you leave the exhibit. Our familiarity in exploring the intentions behind nonsensical artworks encourages us to create symbols out of other nonsense.
Doing the “OK” sign became a white power symbol, a rock thrown through the window of an Asian-owned restaurant became a symbol against Asian hate crimes, and mask-wearing has become its own symbol as well.
Tucker Carlson ranted last week about wearing masks outdoors and political commentator Matthew Dowd responded, saying, “People wear masks as an act of caring and compassion for others. People carry confederate flags as an act of hate and division toward others. See the difference???”
Ignoring for a second that Dowd believes a piece of medical equipment stands for something other than the function it serves, he assumes he’s an authority on how Confederate iconography is viewed by larger society.
However, there have been few topics in recent years that have shown the contrast in opinions between regular folks and our country’s upper-class.
A Morning Consult poll done during the height of our latest “racial reckoning” last summer found that 43% of people look at the Confederate flag as a symbol of Southern pride, while 39% see it as racist.
When it comes to Confederate statues, Morning Consult found that 44% of people wanted to keep them up, compared with 32% that wanted to remove them. It appears that, like modern art, the majority can’t have a voice in this matter (because if they did, they’d never make it into museums).
A disregard for people’s opinions on symbols is best represented by how Virginia school boards, a state covered in Civil War landmarks, have treated name change efforts.
For the past five years, democratically controlled legislatures at all levels of government have been working to remove Confederate and patriotic symbols despite strong public disagreement.
Fairfax County’s school board dropped J.E.B. Stuart’s name from a high school — despite a survey of over 3,000 people finding that 56% of respondents wanted to keep the name.
But these were just Confederates. Reasonable people can all agree that their cause is morally wrong and not worthy of honoring with a school name. It’s ok for the government to ignore the opinions it solicited though, because it uncovered our wrongthink by doing so.
It hasn’t stopped there either. The Falls Church City school system decided last fall to remove the names of Thomas Jefferson and George Mason from two of their schools on the basis that they held slaves.
Now, two people who helped enshrine the concept of individual freedom are having their public presence diminished by people making use of that same freedom.
And yes, a survey was taken on whether to change these names, with roughly 55% of people wanting to keep them. Once again, your opinion doesn’t matter if it’s the wrong one.
There’s been other examples where school boards were smart enough not to ask people what they think, like Arlington County, Staunton, and Springfield stripping the name “Lee” from their schools.
At the city-level, Richmond’s famous Monument Avenue has lost all its Confederate statues, with a vandalized Lee statue serving as the lone one remaining (pending a lawsuit).
These changes would be easier to stomach if we got good symbols in return, but we’re not. J.E.B. Stuart became “Justice” High School, the other Lee High School simply became “Staunton High School,” and “Washington-Lee” was converted into “Washington-Liberty.”
As for Mason and Jefferson, their replacement names are “Meridian” and “Oak Street.”
In the words of one Arlington historian, the new names are “sterile.” We’re quickly becoming the flavorless utopia found in the movie ‘Demolition Man.’
In the film, Sylvester Stallone wakes up from a cryo-freeze in a future where, “it’s been deemed that anything not good for you is bad; hence, illegal. Alcohol, caffeine, contact sports, meat,” according to Sandra Bullock’s character.
She goes on to say, “Bad language, chocolate, gasoline, uneducational toys and anything spicy. Abortion is also illegal, but then again so is pregnancy if you don’t have a license.”
The one difference between us and the fictional inhabitants of Demolition Man is that we haven’t consented to what’s being done. We’ve pushed back on removing these symbols in every polite way possible but that’s been ignored because politicians just don’t think we know any better.
Recently, conservatives have compared the removal of symbols to other symbolic purges in history, such as Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in Communist China where emblems of the “bourgeois” as well as ancient customs were expelled from the culture.
However, there’s no need to make cheap comparisons. We’re too free and too aware (and frankly, too well-armed) to allow that kind of societal overhaul.
It’s also true that symbols do not have one true meaning that should hold in perpetuity. Just look at how the swastika’s meaning changed drastically over time.
Let’s be fair about this issue, too. Gradually, more of us are starting to consider these Confederate symbols as unwelcome in public spaces. One of the aforementioned Morning Consult polls showed just that.
Evolving on topics is natural and should be supported. That’s how we improve as a country.
However, taking people’s 50-50 split on what they think of these symbols as permission to dictate what they want it to be is abhorrent behavior for our politicians. It robs us of our ability to set the tempo on how we progress on these topics as a community.
More so, it makes us feel like we’re not in control of the physical environment we’re a part of.
That’s why we’re losing our will to fight these battles anymore. Those “sterile” names are chosen because they don’t offend anyone.
For instance, one of the suggested names to replace the Jefferson school in Falls Church was a nearby creek.
However, because the creek had flooded previously — as creeks are wont to do — the school board decided against the name for fear of alienating people who experienced that flooding. Come on.
It’s come to a point where people are averse to choosing anything that could trip someone’s neurosis trigger years down the line.
This tendency isn’t only targeting symbols that conservatives care about either. Those pink “pussy” hats that came about during the 2017 Women’s March were disbanded within a year because they supposedly excluded trans women.
“I personally won’t wear one because if it hurts even a few people’s feelings, then I don’t feel like it’s unifying,” said one organizer,
Whatever happened to honoring contemporary arts’ founding principle about evoking a reaction? Those artists should be rolling in their studios at how quickly we’ve detached from our symbols entirely out of fear of getting the wrong reaction. Instead, preferring something docile, but also emotionally barren, as the representation of us.
This monopoly on meaning is why we can no longer have symbols that stand for anything. When it appears as if our symbols and their interpretations are imposed on us, rather than reflecting how we truly feel, it kills our connection to them as a result.
If people can’t connect to where they live, then how do you expect them to want to invest in their community, or neighborhood, or even each other?
We believe we’ve “arrived” by disposing of these symbols, so those figures no longer need to grace our eyes at a park or a school. Really what we’re doing is showing how little we care to learn more about ourselves.