Editor’s note: This commentary is by Steve May, who is a licensed independent clinical social worker and a member of the Selectboard in Richmond, where he resides.
Symbols mattered last week to whomever it was who scrawled a swastika across the wall of a bathroom stall at Burlington’s Fletcher Free Library. After all, this person chose a place dedicated to knowledge and wisdom, and at that place decided to reference the most barbaric period in recent human history. This place dedicated to the free exchange of ideas at least for a short period of time last week was sullied by the echo of humankind’s basest of all instincts. The fact that whoever did this chose to write on a bathroom wall is also significant. If this event were something one was proud of, wouldn’t one find a more prominent place to expose one’s fervent belief in racial politics than a bathroom. At least half the public can’t see it there.
The swastika is synonymous with hate. It is shorthand for a kind of hatred based in Aryan power and white privilege. Its use was deliberate. After all, whoever it was that wound up writing on that wall included a message reserved for people of color in addition to the swastika. One can only assume that they felt the symbol of the Third Reich was the only thing adequate to express their message. Having a wall of some size and presumably some level of forethought, they settled on this swastika. This very likely was not an issue of word economy. They knew exactly what they were saying, and to whom they were saying it.
Symbols mattered in 2015 when a man barely out of his teens walked into a South Carolina Bible study and slaughtered 10 strangers in the hope of launching a race war. He pointed to the continued presence of the Confederate stars and bars on state flags across the South as affirmation of a desire for certain kind racial politics rooted in hatred. This mass murder may have been avoided if anyone had paid attention to another symbol, his twitter handle: the last Rhodesian (@thelastrhodesian). Rhodesia is the colonial name for modern day Zimbabwe. Under British rule, the colonial government there adhered to an apartheid regime that left minority whites in control while majority black populations formed a permanent underclass.
Symbols continue to matter in South Burlington where continued arguments over the high school’s mascot launched a tax revolt and divided a community so deeply that both sides are moving this fight from the meeting room to the courtroom. The parties being certain that they are right have laid claim to idea of Rebel and rebellion, with one side invoking “Johnny Reb” and the other attaching to the image and likeness of the “Rebel Alliance” straight out of the Star Wars trilogy. Central to their argument is that their concept is right and the other side is simply lacking.
And again in Burlington, a high school student invoking the swastika as his profile photo on school social media accounts speaks volumes. In choosing an image bastardized by the Nazis, he assumes the legacy of their bad acts along with whatever religious iconology may have been associated with it in a different place and a different time. Things change over time, images are not stagnant. Whatever the purer purpose once associated with this symbol, it is most clearly not that today. Instead, the swastika invokes places so horrific we speak of them with one name: Auschwitz, Dachau, Birkenau, and so on.
Symbols still matter. The Gadsden flag has changed over time. The yellow “don’t tread on me” flag complete with its iconic snake dates to the earliest days of the republic. It represented a call for unity with each of the snake’s sections correlating to a part of the 13 colonies. The idea being that together the snake could protect itself and a united America would stand for liberty, justice and unity. Whatever elements of common cause once were associated with it, they no longer do. The political right co-opted both flag and the symbol. No one could reasonably consider it to be a symbol of unity today.
Symbols always matter. They always have mattered and they always will matter. They are proxies, a kind of shorthand. An image can say in an instant what hundreds of words can’t. They can speak softly and they sometimes project boldly. They are a reflection of us and our times for good or for ill. Regardless, these symbols … they matter.