Saturday, July 04, 2015

Ruminations 56: On Symbols in American Political Ideology--From Russian Imperial Anthems to Confederate Battle Flags, Marriage, Legislature, and Statute

(Pix from Great Seal of the United States, State Symbols USA)

For American Independence Day I have gotten into the habit of considering questions touching on the essence of American political ideology (e.g., Ruminations 52: Surmizing Liberty and Equality in American Political Ideology; Democracy Part 28/Ruminations 51: On the Contradiction of Voting, Democracy and Revolution in the U.S. and Egypt). But Americans don't think much in ideological terms; Americans think even less in historical terms, except perhaps to the extent necessary to reach back to a term useful in new ways for current debates. Americans invoke ideology instrumentally, especially in defense of their customs and traditions, or sometimes against them, in either case with sometimes profound effects. And sometimes Americans use their ideology strategically to manage or rework historical perception--but only when it is practical, that is when it furthers some political, social, economic or cultural objective with respect to which sufficient political mobilization can be cultivated.

So I have wondered how I might answer the following question were it ever posed by an individual who is not a U.S. national: how is it that the rules of symbolic speech in the United States  can incorporate the national anthem of late Tsarist Russia as part of the climax of the national independence day celebrations, but erase other symbols whose origins might be equally problematic.

It appears to have become something of a tradition in the United States, to accompany our celebratory fireworks displays, especially on the day marked to commemorate our national independence day, with the most stirring music.  But stirring music written to commemorate a Russian victory over invading Napoleonic forces int early 19th century, and the climax of which, over the sound of cannon's roar, includes strains from the old Imperial Russian national anthem of the later 19th century. The climatic conclusion of the 1812 Overture, once again used to accompany the end of the fireworks display at the nation's capital,  the nation was treated to the stirring chorus: 

God Save the Tsar!, in Russian
Боже, Царя храни!Сильный, державный,Царствуй на славу, на славу нам! Царствуй на страх врагам,Царь православный!Боже, Царя храни!
Transliteration Bozhe, Tsarya khrani!Sil'niy, derzhavniy,Tsarstvuy na 'slavu, Na 'slavu nam! Tsarstvuy na strakh vragam,Tsar pravoslavniy.Bozhe, Tsarya khrani!  English translation
Under ordinary circumstances, one could dismiss this either as innocent appropriation (we like the tune, we ignore its content and history), or an an American predilection for dissociating history from its symbolic expressions.  So that the anthem of a regime that gave the world the organized pogram, and produced the conditions that made the Soviet Union possible, and whose imperial failures produced the great flash points of conflicts all along the old imperial borders, has been transformed into the inspirational anthem of the United States as it celebrates important public civic events. 

Perhaps such exuberance for transformation might be excused. Others have appropriated this anthem for its own ends--universities in the United States and the like--with little ill effect.  And there is a long and honored tradition of taking catchy tunes relevant to one culture and adapting them to the needs and tastes of another--well known in the United States is the sharing of the tune that in the United Kingdom serves as its national anthem (God Save the Queen) and which in the United States is the tune to "My Country 'tis of Thee."         

Yet Americans are not as oblivious as this suggests to the power of symbol and the appropriation of image or music. Nor are they as broadminded and instrumentally driven to transform ancient images and symbols into something that positively reflects current American self image. Indeed American political and legal culture has become quite sensitive to symbol and willing to use social, political and legal discipline to suppress symbolic expression.  We have agreed that some symbols, cross burnings for example (Virginia v. Black, 538 U.S. 343 (2003)) are powerful enough to intimidate in ways that may be actionable under criminal law (even in the face of the protection of its otherwise protected ideological meaning). 

And this year, in the face of continued racially motivate violence, the symbolism of the battle flag and the related Navy Jack of the self-proclaimed but short lived Confederate States of America, have become the symbolic battle ground both of appropriation and of symbols of contemporary racial bigotry and the violence to which it is closely associated (see here, here, and here).  This campaign to confront a constructed symbolic meaning of a historical artifact with multiple and contested meanings has moved from the political to the social (see, e.g., here) and cultural (see, e.g., here).  

These campaigns, of course, touch not just on the symbolic meaning of the Confederate States of America, but also its legacy after the secession that gave rise to that entity was suppressed.  Virtually all of that discussion is also symbolic--of the meaning of race relations in the United States, and the social, cultural, civil and political condition of people of African descent in the United States.  These are discussions that are most powerfully invoked through symbol.

And these great discourses on and through symbol in the matter of race in the United States stand in stark contrast to the obliviousness of the symbolic discourse produced by an insistence of playing parts of the Imperial Russian national Anthem to the greater glory of  Russian autocracy at the climactic moment of celebrations of American independence from the usurpations of the Crown in Parliament. These differences suggest some insights.

1.  Symbols are infused with the meaning that people are willing to see in them.  No one seems to care any more that the 1812 Overture was not written to celebrate American independence.  As of the start of the 21st century it might as well have been.  Indeed, the 1812 Overture may now have acquired a substantially different symbolic power in the United States than it had before or elsewhere.  Symbolic power is both temporally and socially contextual in quite powerful ways.

2.  The same may be true of the Christian cross set afire and the Battle Flag and Navy Jacks of the CSA. That these served as the symbolic representations of the military power of a state in formation (even one whose political ideology is today abhorrent) is no longer relevant (except within a narrow historical context which is still contested).  Since the 1870s these symbols have been appropriated not just by the descendents of those who served in those militaries (the flags at least) but also by those who have invested those flags with symbolic value that is both historical and quite current.  These are not merely historical symbols, but the current signatures of social and political groups espousing ideologies that have long been reject by and incompatible with the founding premises of the American Republic as currently constituted. But even their post Civil War historical symbolism has been bound up with an appropriation by individuals and groups, powerful groups, who wrapped their violence against the persons, property and liberty of (especially but not entirely) persons of African descent in the symbols of the CSA battle flag and the burning Cross. (Of course with respect to the latter it is interesting that the religious organizations from which the revered symbol of the Cross was appropriated were not entirely or consistently fierce in the defense of the symbolic meaning of the Cross against appropriation, but I leave that for another day). 

3.   Symbolic power is grounded in the willingness of communities to invest objects with meaning and to use that infused meaning as a means of compressing discourse.  The value of anthems, of the CSA flag, and of a burning Cross is precisely in their power to compress sometimes complex discourse into an easy to identify and transmit object.  Symbols here convey not just meaning but the nuances of political, social and cultural discourse.  They become objects that compress within them, and supplant, discourse; the object as sign as concept.

4.  But concepts, too, can be transformed into symbol, and thus objectified, compress the ideas they now supplant. Thus transformed, they serve as the fetish object, a vessel whose meaning can be constructed, compressed and contested. One no longer speaks through concepts, one speaks through objects that contain concepts that give the object-symbol power, the way that Nkisi are built within traditional African religious societies.

(Metropolitan Museum of Art; Power Figure (Nkisi N'Kondi: Mangaaka);Date: 19th century; Geography: or Cabinda, Angola, Republic of the Congo, Chiloango River region: Culture: Kongo peoples; Yombe group)

Consider both the objectification and the talismanic quality of the state of marriage, of the object containing the legislative power.  In these two recent Supreme Court cases American ideology is exposed for the way in which marriage and legislature are transformed from verb (action) to noun (thing) within which rests conceptual structure, power and taboo, the symbolic interpretation of which  were central to the determination of their legal consequences. 

5.  But not just legal consequences.  Control of symbol and its meaning--of the object as compressed meaning--affects social space indirectly through its management of meaning in legal space.  Justice Alito, dissenting in Obergefell et al. v. Hodges, No. 14–556 (Argued April 28, 2015—Decided June 26, 2015) noted
Perhaps recognizing how its reasoning may be used, the majority attempts, toward the end of its opinion, to reassure those who oppose same-sex marriage that their rights of conscience will be protected. Ante, at 26–27. We will soon see whether this proves to be true. I assume that those who cling to old beliefs will be able to whisper their thoughts in the recesses of their homes, but if they repeat those views in public, they will risk being labeled as bigots and treated as such by governments, employers, and schools. (Alito, J., dissenting slip op, at p. 7)
Justice Alito incorrectly conflates legal space and social space.  But his insight is correct. And that is the power of symbol, of the objectification of concept and discourse within a symbolic object--marriage, legislature, CSA Battle Flag, Burning Cross, Russian Imperial Anthem, etc. What Justice Alito noticed about the effect of the legal construction of the symbol "marriage" in social space applies with equal measure to flags, anthems and even institutions like legislatures.  

6. That conveyance of compressed meaning makes symbols critical for political mobilization.  Where societies operate through institutions that are managed through mass mobilization, symbolic speech is not convenient, it is essential to the operation fo politics, social movement and the good order of society. It is not for nothing that Americans discuss the CSA flag in public life but find it rather more difficult to discuss the issues of race in the United States. Complex societies, at the level of mass politics, can only operate through the construction and manipulation of symbols--symbols infused with meaning. To engage in discourse about symbols and their public role is to engage in discourse, by proxy, with the complex underlying issues that are understood to be incorporate within the symbol.  Thus, Americans do not engage in nuanced discussion of the issue of Indians in the United States--that discussion is usually subsumed in one about the name of the football team that plays out of Washington D.C. (see, e.g., here and here). 

7.  As a consequence, control of the meaning of symbol becomes one of the most important objectives of political, social and political discourse in the United States.  These conversations are now had through and within symbol--and their effect in the social or legal field affects meaning in the other.  Control of the meaning of symbol--control of the meaning of objects--becomes the way in which politics is undertaken now in complex republics.  What meaning does the 1812 Overture convey at the climax of America Independence Day celebration?  What si the meaning of the CSA Battle Flag?  Of a burning Cross?  Americans either appropriate symbols or use it as the way through which political discourse is now undertaken.

8. This is not an argument that American politics or its social and cultural discourse is no more than a species of reductionism of politics and culture to gesture. Rather it is that such discourse is now necessarily effected through symbol. And that transformation also substantially transforms the character of discourse itself.  No longer a creature of its own logic, political discourse through symbol is limited by the meaning possibilities of symbol itself. Symbol becomes a vessel through which those controlling its meaning either see themselves or another.  Construction of symbolic meaning becomes a means of the construction of the communal self, of the self's history and of the meaning that must be extracted from that self in history. Control of that expression becomes control of the premises on which mass action is judged legitimate or not. The symbolic meaning of a burning cross in 1910 and 2010 are quite distinct, the control of that meaning has shifted, and the political consequences of that shifting are powerfully felt. The same for the CSA battle flag.  The Russian Imperial anthem is now understood in American terms in the United States, perhaps to the consternation of those who would seek to retain its ancient symbolic meaning in other places. Marriage as an object is a vessel whose content is quite distinct in 2015 from what it was thought to contain (and the sum of its taboos) in 1915.  The legislature as a symbol object within the American republic is no longer contained within that grand architectural symbol, the state house--but within a symbolic architecture constructed out of popular desire for direct legislative authority. These are powerful symbols that are speech, not just contain speech. 

9.  If we speak through symbols, and if symbols are compressed discourse, and if this compressed discourse has powerful social, cultural and political consequences, then the way in which communities make meaning through symbols--through objects that are signs invested with meaning--becomes a critical means for understanding modern American politics, society, and law.  Each now speaks through symbol, and the control of the meaning of symbol now serves as the basis for politics, and the foundation of law in the United States. The mechanics of American ideology operates through symbol, but so does its meaning. Symbol, thus is not just object, but means to object (process) as well.

10. One sees this most clearly in some recent cases of the American Supreme Court in its construction of symbols of legislative power, marriage, and of the reading of legislation?  In each of these cases complex argument was reduced to and legitimated through the management of the symbolic meaning of the critical object around which a legal decision was constructed--the "legislature", "marriage", and ironically in King v. Burwell (the Affordable Care Act case) the statute as symbol. Indeed this last case might in the long run be more important for the way in which the statute was constructed and applied as object than for its specific holding about the meaning of the act at issue.  Legislature, marriage, a statute, reconstructed as an object could be, when infused with meaning, then applied to answer the specific question posed.  It is this form of discourse that will become both the basis of legal reasoning and the basis of political mobilization in the coming years.Symbol, technique, concept, object now form a self-reinforcing network of meaning at the foundation of the ideology of the American republic.

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