About a year ago vandals hoisted a Nazi flag in a Laramie park, and, not insignificantly, crumpled the American flag that it replaced unceremoniously on the ground.
This spring, a poster appeared in a Cheyenne middle school that slurred both gay and African American people and called on students to join a kids KKK group.
Laramie County School District #1 issued ambiguous directives in the aftermath that left middle school adolescents believing they were prohibited from wearing rainbow insignia as expressions of gay and trans pride. For a while, the school district would not condemn white supremacy outright. Though after community outcry, the rainbows were allowed and Confederate flags and swastikas were prohibited. This is the right policy, however delayed. But the painful process of arriving at that stance reveals a broader cultural problem that is quite vexing: our inability to communicate about symbols in the public realm.
My instinct is that an ahistorical and ethically unmoored version of libertarianism is to blame for these ridiculous and quite hurtful displays of hate and our failure to quickly condemn them. More sharply, I believe such equivocating approximates moral cowardice.
Among the first responses to the swastika flag in Laramie — albeit in the comment sections on local news social media sites — and the poster at the Cheyenne school were claims that they were “false flags.” It is an incredulous and irrelevant claim. First, such occurrences are rare: Marginalized groups rarely stage fake harassment against themselves. Right-wing gadflies like to exploit the rare incidents in which they do, but that doesn’t make it common. Second, and this is an often overlooked point, regardless of who places hurtful symbols in public places, they are still hurtful to those whom such symbols are historically directed.
My broader argument is exactly that: Our discussions about which symbols to revere and which to reject should be firmly in the historical context of their usage, their meaning.
We do this with our most familiar symbols: letters, words and numbers. Outside of theoretical linguistics, only the most obtuse artist, politician, or internet troll will insist that a commonly used word in a language means something entirely different than its familiar definition. And even in theoretical realms, the discussion is still conducted in good faith.
However, especially in this age of disinformation, good faith is hard to find. People seek out information that confirms what they want to believe and too rarely bother to verify what they’ve found. I believe that tracing the origins of the symbols in question and doing it all the time would steer us back to a more honest conversation, at the very least.
The swastika is perhaps the most inflammatory and best symbol to start with and the events in Albany and Laramie counties urge us to begin there. Many of us have encountered someone who would like to dwell on the religious and philosophical import of the bent-armed cross in some Asian cultures and among the indigenous people of the American southwest. It’s a distracting bit of rhetoric, even if the swastika was, and in many ways still is, lodged in those cultures. At the Ivinson Mansion in Laramie there are native-made rugs with the swastika (pointing counterclockwise) on display. They are historical items and they are accompanied by guides who contextualize them. That context is necessary because the swastika changed meaning after the Third Reich used it as a banner to wave while massacring millions. Our treatment of the symbol should change accordingly.
I wish I could put a caption on every ball cap, arm patch, tattoo and truck I see that carries the Confederate flag (as well as on every marker in Wyoming with the name of that génocidaire General Philip Sheridan for the actions against Native Americans in the West). But that’s impossible. However, teachers can do so in classrooms and so can museums. That is why Confederate statues should be moved there instead of left in public squares as uncritical celebrations of a system that denied that people of recent African ancestry were human.
The cry on the right, and, perhaps from the center left as well, is that such contextualizations are, somehow, vaguely, a violation of free speech. This is misguided. Just because people who know nothing of history wish to parade hate symbols, or those who do know history wish to revive them, does not mean that our ethical obligation is to say absolutely nothing. Their right to speak does not supercede my own to put their message in context. Nor does the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment give those who would misconstrue it a monopoly on what we teach or children in school, laud in print or memorialize in our public spaces. That position may run counter to a certain interpretation of the Founding Fathers currently in vogue, but I don’t really care.
We are a worldwide community with permeable borders and mass movements of people. That fact, in and of itself, is neither an evil nor an unadulterated good. But it does require that we seek shared judgments about what discourses we find healthy. We can’t let anything and everything fly willy-nilly — literally in the case of that awful flag in my local park.
I believe that actually talking to one another about the historical record we’ve been given — documents and pictures and, most especially, the personal narratives of people who have since passed on — could save us from talking past each other endlessly and fruitlessly.
Eric Blair, better known as George Orwell, did not accidentally have the protagonist of 1984 work in a government department that erased historical records. We should remember and acknowledge the worst mistakes of the past, stop those who wish to reintroduce them, and condemn their symbols, language and ideology. We owe it to ourselves and to the future.