The current administration shook me awake, as I’m sure it did for countless others. Our democracy seemed abstract, distant and autonomous enough to afford me the privilege to forget about politics almost entirely. Embarrassing to admit, but true.
Then something like Charlottesville happens, and you’re reminded how close we sit to upheaval and peril. Words and symbols that history flushed down the toilet long ago return and suggest that perhaps they were never fully erased.
A friend and I were driving around the rural parts of Pittsburgh a couple of months ago, and we passed a freshly built home, a log-cabin type house that your mom would think beautiful, with rocking chairs on the long front porch.
And a lone, clean confederate flag suspended above the front steps.
The sight of those colors wasn’t surprising. Spend some time driving the county roads in central and western New York, and you’ll find rebel flags sashed in the windows of tattered homes or, in one instance above Keuka Lake, painted on a free-standing sign in a frontyard. What struck me was the flat, sprawling yard, the quaint house, it seemed so nice and reasonable. Normal. That duality was jarring and unsettling. What did the flag mean in that context? Was I being a fool in extending the homeowner the benefit of the doubt, that they couldn’t be that brazenly ignorant, simply on account of how nice their house was?
My friend and I reasoned – naively, in retrospect – that not everyone who would fly such a thing in their frontyard is a proud racist. Maybe they were native southerners, raging Skynard fans or something, but more likely simply enjoyed – like so many, it seems – goading people like me who would find that symbol ironic, dumb and intentionally antagonistic. We changed the subject.
I’ve thought a bit about that moment since then, about symbols, meanings, ambiguities, how the confederate flag may have meant something else before, but context and our collective consciousness have rendered mute whatever those alternative meanings were. What that flag means as a symbol and to those who choose to fly it is pretty firm now. It shouldn’t merit the leniency in being open to interpretation anymore. That time is over.
In my mind, our rural Pennsylvanian succeeded only in willfully outing themselves as another hostile person, just another asshole. I can’t draw up a more palatable takeaway than that, and I’m not obligated to.
Things I’ve been enjoying: “On Tyranny” by Timothy Snyder; Antisocialites by Alvvays; Something Else!!! by Ornette Coleman
May 24, 2017 – “Only words” – I sit for half the bus ride mulling what I want to say, what I’ve always wanted to say, and all I get are these stupid words.
May 31, 2017 – “Blueberry Burps” – A dude on the bus tips his head all the way back to catch the last dregs out of an energy drink. He burps, off-gassing a faintly berry-tinged plume that drifts throughout the bus. He bobs along to his headphones and appears generally happy with the day’s course. His girl is asleep against the window.
October 24, 2017 – “???” – These autumnal days with their lanky shadows and self-goals to nap more. Projects to finish, to restart, the ones you thought you’d get to during the summer but knew you never really would. I have a record to make.