Magazine article The Nation

Confederate Semiotics

Magazine article The Nation

Confederate Semiotics

Article excerpt

Last Thanksgiving, Governor David Beasley shocked his fellow South Carolinians during his first televised address by announcing that he'd had a religious experience. This might not seem so out of character, since Beasley was the Christian Coalition candidate who in 1994 muscled past the party regular to get his name on the Republican line and then trounced his Democratic opponent. What surprised his listeners was that his epiphany meant reversing himself on a campaign pledge, announcing that it was only meet and right to take down the Confederate flag from the capitol dome in Columbia, and supporting a bill to do so. The news went national, too, in part because few could believe that there remained a state--and South Carolina is the only one--where the Confederacy's inflammatory battle flag, commonly called the Stars and Bars, actually snaps on the same pole as Old Glory, and, rather paradoxically, just beneath the soothing state flag with its midnight-blue field overlaid with emblems of a swaying palmetto tree and a sliver of crescent moon.

The national press reported the story as just another symptom of the country's troubled race relations. But that was the least of it. I was watching the speech from my sister's sofa in Chester, South Carolina, where a gleeful, rambunctious family reunion fell into captive silence. (To locate myself media-wise, Chester is 170 miles north of the Citadel, twenty-five miles east of Susan Smith's lake and forty-five miles northeast of the Ku Klux Klan store.) We were transfixed by the arguments presented not only by the Governor but by two state officials who also spoke to provide the speech with "balance."

The speeches themselves were novel for their departures from the debate's old terms: Flag is evil, flag is not evil. Rather, these speakers put forward nuanced arguments of semiotics, the science of symbols. And I don't mean they argued that the flag debate signified other issues beyond race (it does, but more on that later). No, I mean they were actually arguing semiotic theory.

Beasley said that after a series of church burnings and several racial shootings, he had prayed and had a conversion in his semiotic view--to a kind of workingman's post-structuralism. His exact words: "You see. the Confederate flag flying above the Statehouse flies in a vacuum. Its meaning and purpose are not defined by law. Because of this, any group can give the flag any meaning it chooses. The Klan can misuse it as a racist tool, as it has, and others can misuse it solely as a symbol for racism, as they have."

Beasley was suggesting that symbols can attract new meanings and that we are powerless to stop this accretion. These meanings cling to a symbol like iron filings to a magnet, and the culture must contend with the symbol as it changes, not as we wish it to be. In response. the other two men drew from a semiotic position that sticks to old Platonist ideals of meaning. They argued that while various patinas of signification may collect upon any symbol. there is an original one that can be declared as the symbol's "true" meaning.

"We are told this flag lacks definition and must be moved to define it," said Glenn McConnell, a state senator from my home-town of Charleston, but "the flag was defined years ago on a monument on the Statehouse grounds which says that in the hopelessness of the hospitals, the despair of defeat, and the short sharp agony of struggle, these South Carolinians who answered the call of their state did so in the consolation of the belief that here at home, they would not be forgotten."

Charles Condon, the state Attorney General, put it more pithily: "If that flag is a symbol of honor, as the Governor and I agree that it is, then there should be no controversy. Why are we even here talking about it?"

McConnell and Condon's theory can be seen even more neatly distilled on any highway in South Carolina--as a bumper sticker showing the Confederate flag and bearing the caption HERITAGE NOT HATE. …

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