In the wake of the massacre at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston last week, calls appeared nationwide to take down the Confederate battle flag that flies on the South Carolina state house grounds and elsewhere. Opponents of the flag point out that it represents a rebellion established to protect slavery and maintain the “heaven ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race.” On top of that, since the Confederacy’s defeat 150 years ago, the flag has been used as a symbol of white supremacy, the defense of Jim Crow, and violence against African-Americans. The flag is “a symbol of terror,” as historian Edward Baptist tweeted.
Supporters retort that the flag represents “heritage, not hate.” The flag’s defenders argue that it is not intended to offend African Americans, but that it symbolizes independence, Southern culture, and the bravery of Confederate soldiers. In this view, flying the flag is a matter of tradition and honoring history that has nothing to do with the present. In a New York Times debate, a Sons of Confederate Veterans executive wrote that “it is a symbol of family members who fought for what they thought was right in their time, and whose valor became legendary in military history…. It is our legacy.”
Even those who support removing the flag in the aftermath of the murders, such as Gov. Nikki Haley (R), defend those who believe it stands for “traditions that are noble. Traditions of history, of heritage and of ancestry.” “This is part of who we are,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
These arguments in support of the Confederate flag are not unique to this American debate. Supporting controversial and divisive symbols with arguments about tradition, culture, history, and heritage is a global pattern. Symbols, such as flags and monuments, are used in all societies to represent power and illustrate the boundaries of the political community. In deeply divided societies, where these boundaries are still contested and there is often a history of political violence, the public display of symbols can be highly contentious. But when opponents of these symbols call for their removal or modification, the symbols’ proponents defend them by saying they represent heritage, not hate.
In Northern Ireland, Protestants loyal to the British crown annually hold parades around the province to celebrate their religious beliefs and commemorate historic military victories. For many Catholics who support a united Ireland, these parades are seen as triumphalist and offensive manifestations of anti-Catholic bigotry, particularly when the parade passes through or near Catholic neighborhoods and towns. When confronted with this opposition, Protestants reply that they do not intend to offend anyone. Their parades and the routes they take are simply a matter of “tradition.” As the firebrand Protestant minister and politician the Rev. Ian Paisley put it in a speech supporting the most contentious parade in recent memory, parading “is at the very heart and foundation of our heritage.”
In South Africa, many white Afrikaners celebrate the Day of the Vow, a holiday to commemorate an 1838 battle when their ancestors slaughtered 3,000 Zulus. After the end of apartheid in 1994, the new government renamed the holiday the Day of Reconciliation, but some Afrikaners continue to mark the old battle. “The Day of Reconciliation may be a good idea, but for Afrikaners, the Day of the Vow is still what’s in our hearts…. This is a religious holiday that is based on our people’s history,” said said one celebrant. They don’t deny that thousands of Zulus died, but they state that what they celebrate that day is a historic covenant made between God and the Afrikaner people.
In Eastern Europe, many communist monuments were torn down along with the Berlin Wall. But other statues around the region remained, especially memorials to the Red Army’s service in World War II. Although ethnic Russians view them as tributes to the sacrifices made by Soviet troops to liberate Eastern Europe from Nazism, others see them as cruel reminders of life (and deaths) under communist dictatorships. In Estonia, the government decided to remove a Soviet war memorial from the center of the capital in 2007. This sparked two days of riots amid public outcry from ethnic Russians in Estonia. The Russian foreign minister called the removal “blasphemous,” adding that “the heroes who sacrificed their lives for the happiness and freedom of future generations must not become victims of political games.”
Why do the defenders of these controversial symbols around the globe rely on arguments based on history, heritage, and tradition? What is the purpose of this rhetoric? The defenders are trying to win a political argument by removing the issue from the realm of politics. The point of cloaking the symbol in the language of history and tradition is to deflect criticism by putting the flag, monument, holiday, or ritual above political debate. The idea is that heritage transcends politics and is therefore exempt from democratic practices, such as critique, debate, and compromise. Since the symbol is about heritage, not politics and certainly not hatred, it has to be given a pass.
Of course, this maneuver is a form of political power. It uses what political scientists Peter Bachrach and Morton S. Baratz called the “second face of power,” the power to keep an issue off of the political agenda, thereby restricting decision-making on that issue.
The heritage defense is especially potent because the legacy of the past is a strong source of legitimacy. It conjures what Max Weber called “the authority of the ‘eternal yesterday.’” Therefore arguments that flying a flag is our tradition, part of our heritage, or something we have always done are attempts to obtain legitimacy. The mantle of legitimacy is what makes such arguments so appealing and so difficult to counter. An argument about heritage carries the weight of historic heroes and the blood of ancestors. Counter-arguments by opponents can be readily dismissed as politically-motivated attacks on those heroes and ancestors and the good values they stood for.
To be sure, history and heritage are not the only ways to claim that something is apolitical, or even anti-political, and many political actors try to remove issues from politics. But no matter the chosen language, arguments of these types are intended to advance one agenda over another. These are political arguments—despite their claims to the opposite.
I am not claiming that everyone who makes an argument about heritage is acting cunningly or that they do not truly cherish the emblem and believe it represents a vital part of their culture. Supporters, like opponents, do hold genuine and deep-rooted feelings about these symbols, which is why these issues are so difficult to resolve.
But, by making the symbol an issue about the past, not the present, the heritage defense also allows supporters to distance themselves from atrocities carried out in its name. It allows sympathizers to claim that while they embody the true meaning of the heritage encapsulated by the symbol, others have highjacked it. As Haley said, the violence does not “reflect the people of our state who respect, and in many ways, revere” the Confederate battle flag. South Carolina State Sen. Tom Davis stated that though the flag has been “misappropriated by hate groups as a symbol of their hatred” there are “some very good and decent people…without a racist bone in their body, who revere that flag.”
If the flag were plainly understood as a symbol of present-day political ideologies, not historical heritage, these arguments would be more difficult to maintain.
Jonathan S. Blake is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Columbia Global Policy Initiative and research fellow at the Chumir Foundation. He is completing a book tentatively titled “Contentious Rituals: Parading Faith and Nation in Northern Ireland.”