In Defense of Cool Old Symbols

In Defense of Cool Old Symbols June 26, 2015

Let me begin by agreeing that it’s time for the Confederate flag to be retired from public life. At the very least it should come down from the South Carolina State Capitol building. It hasn’t been that long since Appomattox; the time when segregationists raised the flag to rally their troops remains very much within living memory. Whatever innocuous messages it may retain for certain white people – and even the Anti-Defamation League concedes that it does – it can mean only one thing for blacks. Their sensibilities deserve deference.

But I have to say, I’m a little nervous about how far this cultural purge is going to go. We’re living in an age where people read profound and disturbing meanings into what ought to be trivial things. Consider Susan Ager’s dressing-down, so to speak, of Caitlyn Jenner, for dressing up like a sex kitten. For an increasing number of us, anyone or anything older than Bono falls under automatic suspicion. Consider Dana Dusbiber, who would remove Shakespeare, “a long-dead British guy” from school curricula and replace his works with “the African oral tradition.” Just how much of the past do we intend to send to the showers, and on what grounds?

I admit, I’m compromised. When I was 17, I had the Lion of Flanders tattooed on my right shoulder. Actually, I had no idea it was the Lion of Flanders. I knew just enough about heraldry to recognize it as a sable lion rampant. It looked cool, so into my dermis it went.

Anyone with a gimlet eye and a gimlet social conscience could find much to object to here. In the dark days of feudalism, heraldry was the bling-bling of elite landowning exploiters. Since those days, this particular charge has become a favorite of Dutch-speaking Belgians, some of whom list heavily a-starboard in their politics. I just don’t take the damn thing that literally. The last thing I’d want is to return to the days of the manse and the glebe and the battle of the Golden Spurs, but I am still able to enjoy daydreaming about those times in a puerile, time-wasting way, just like you do when you watch Downton Abbey.

In fact, an awful lot of nifty-looking symbols pay homage either to the cult of chivalry, or to bad, patriarchal old Christianity, both of which engaged in a brisk mutual trade for a millennium. The lion rampant (along with its cousins, the lions couchant, stantant, salient, and sejant) is of course a heraldic device. Knock the stars off the bars in the flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, and you’re left with a saltire, also called St. Andrew’s cross, in honor of the apostle reputedly crucified on one like it.

It’s true that some far-right leaders have impressed these symbols into service for evil. It’s just as true that some moderate right leaders have impressed them into service for good. Partly by adopting as their house style the Wagnerian blend of chivalry and paganism – an alternative view of a perfect past – Nazis managed to make themselves respectable to reactionaries. Grail-happy Himmler conceived of the SS as a knightly order and named its fighting units after heroes like Charlemagne, Prince Eugene of Savoy, and Skanderbeg. On the flip side, by adding the Cross of Lorraine to the flag of Free France, De Gaulle did his best to out-tradition the Boches and remind the world that they were, at bottom, a bunch of futurist freaks.

When the Left was in its infancy, it drew happily from its own full arsenal of potent images with their own historical pedigree. Since early republicans took their inspiration from Athens and Rome, they enjoyed first claim on anything classical, from pillars and pediments to chiton-clad figures and stiff-winged eagles. But it was the flowering of Romantic sensibilities that really gave them their edge. Not only could they incarnate Rousseau’s General Will by sticking a beautiful woman under a Phrygian cap and naming her “Marianne,” they suddenly found themselves with all of contemporary musical tastes at their disposal. And did they ever milk them. “Marseillaise” and “Internationale” could radicalize a monk.

As the revolution took hold in Russia, its visual sense took a nosedive into a pile of stars, panoplies, and hammers crossed with sickles between sheaves of wheat – all static, bombastic, and ugly. But the Nazi invasion spurred the communists to take their music game to a new level – mainly by collaborating, on the sly, with Christianity. The job of composing patriotic music went to Aleksandr Aleksandrov, who had gotten his start in imperial times, singing in the chorus at Kazan cathedral.

In Aleksandrov’s compositions, you can hear a sense of the sacred, probably one reason why two of his greatest songs remain in service (given new lyrics) in Putin’s Holy Russia. One, the anthem of the Russian army, is even called “The Sacred War.” Another, “Unbreakable Union,” is the anthem of the Russian Federation. If the first doesn’t send chills up your spine, and if the second doesn’t make you bawl like a baby, then see a doctor, because you must not have a central nervous system.

Today’s Left, as we’ve seen, is a hell of a lot pickier, so I cannot help but bite my lip waiting to see what new symbolic and monumental style they’ll cook up for this country of ours. Only complete abstractions can meet their apparent goal of complete inclusiveness. Do you feel stirred by the European Union flag with its stars arranged in a circle like students folk-dancing in a progressive kindergarten? Me neither. The only alternative I can imagine is socialist realism, which recently saw a comeback in Lei Yixin’s imposing statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. On the good side, it sends a clear message. On the not-so-good side, that message is: Keep your voice down. This place is bugged.

One thing to take comfort in – we’ll probably get to keep Lady Liberty. Identifying as female (despite a certain androgyny, which may even suggest gender fluidity), she favors sober, practical outfits. Her resting face, though not actually angry, is certainly stern. Basically, she’s Caitlyn Jenner as Susan Ager would have dressed her.

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