The Changing Meaning of Historical Symbols

Last weekend I came across several mentions of a story in which a group seeking to reclaim the true meaning of the swastika was taking their case to the skies in several places, including Long Island.

The group has its own website here.

There’s not a lot of difference between a group that wants to rehabilitate a symbol used by a hate group in the twentieth century and a group that wants to rehabilitate a flag used by a hate group in the twentieth century … just ask Matthew Heimbach.











Of course, some people would like to disassociate themselves from both the Confederate flag and the swastika because it gets in the way of promoting their version of white supremacy.

It would seem to me that there might be some common ground here for people who decry “political correctness” and “presentism” and “revisionism” in their advocacy of flying Confederate flags to join forces with the pro-Swastika crowd. Both groups argue that their cherished symbol has been twisted out of context to represent something it never was meant to represent.

After all, what is the difference between this:


and this?

You tell me … and, please … do not invoke Godwin’s Law, for in this case the issue is the use of symbols, not an argument that the Confederates were Nazis or vice-versa. That’s not an argument I would make.

UPDATE: Leave it to Connie Chastain to claim that the argument I stated I was not making was of course the argument I was making:

If you compare symbols, you compare what they stand for.  Don’t say you don’t.  If you compare a Nazi swastika to a Confederate battle flag, you are comparing Nazis and Confederates. You are comparing what Nazis did with what Confederates did, and likely to attempt to draw similarities between the two.

If I was making any comparison among historical entities, I was comparing the Nazis with the KKK in their taking a symbol to use for their own purposes. Confederate heritage groups are akin to this new movement in that they want to reinstate what they claim are original meanings.

More remarkable is this statement:

Obviously, it is ludicrous to imply that the Third Reich and the KKK both “hate groups” to further the implication being that there’s little to no difference between them

Setting aside Chastain’s flawed prose, if the Nazis and the KKK are not both “hate groups” (Nazis continue to use the swastika, Connie), then it behooves her to tell us which one is not a hate group. Or is Connie Chastain implying that neither the Nazis or the KKK are hate groups?

Connie then reminds us of how well white southerners treated their slaves by feeding them, caring for the aged, and helping out pregnant enslaved women. Really. Next she’ll tell us that selling off family members was a means of preserving domestic harmony and that coerced interracial relations were okay, so long as it was white males on enslaved black females (heck … she’ll say it wasn’t a violent crime at all … even Billy Bearden’s more honest about that). After all, those were just sweet southern boys, right, Connie?

Finally, Connie returns to her fantasies of violence (perhaps as a way to pump up interest for her forthcoming book):

The only reason anybody would portray the VaFlaggers, even by implication, as on a part with Nazi apologists is the hope that their smears would incite somebody to harm or injure the VaFlaggers.


Of course, the only person who compared the Virginia Flaggers to Nazi apologists was Connie Chastain … although that brings up once more the association of Matthew Heimbach with the Virginia Flaggers (and other Confederate heritage groups, including the SCV).

Thanks for the reminder, Connie.

So, there you have it, folks: the person who posts materials on the Virginia Flaggers’ blog claims that (a) either the KKK or the Nazis are not a hate group (2) that neither are a hate group (3) slavery had its benefits for the enslaved. She says so herself.

Again, folks, it’s a heritage of hate, and Connie Chastain is a fitting representative of that perspective.


9 thoughts on “The Changing Meaning of Historical Symbols

  1. jfepperson July 14, 2014 / 12:02 pm

    The difference is that the swastika fly-over was visible to more people! 😉

  2. Christopher Shelley July 14, 2014 / 2:35 pm

    In a neighborhood here in Portland, there are some houses built before WW2 (in the ‘teens, I believe) that have swasikas laid in brick at the base of the chimneys. Looking into this, I found that the masons who did the work were old Norwegians, and this use of their ancestors’ old pagan symbol was their signature. “Old Norse guys did this workmanship here.”

    I do actually know several practitioners of Nordic pagan faith. They would love to be able to use all the symbols from that tradition. But they know better than to try and rehab the swastika. Some symbols are beyond reach.

  3. Schroeder July 14, 2014 / 2:39 pm

    There are those symbols that have too much “hate” attached to them – rehabilitation is not an option. These people need to find new symbols and stop with the sand pounding.

  4. neukomment July 14, 2014 / 4:49 pm

    Uh….. excuse me………. but in the fly over picture, is that a star of David with a swastika on it? Please correct me if I’m misreading that….

      • neukomment July 14, 2014 / 8:09 pm

        So these folks are not just out in left field. They are completely off the chart! (Insert unpronuncable sounds of astonishment and disgust here…. )

        • Brooks D. Simpson July 14, 2014 / 8:15 pm

          They claim it’s a legitimate symbol. See this. On the other hand, they can’t be oblivious to what they are doing.

          Note this comment: “Raelians argue that the banning of the swastika because of its Nazi connections would be like banning the Christian cross because the Klu Klux Klan used to burn them as symbols of their own hate.” Sound like someone we know?

  5. Bob Nelson July 15, 2014 / 4:02 pm

    Symbols? Just what do/should they mean? Are they symbols as we see them today or as they were seen hundreds, thousands of years ago? Certainly there are those who see the CBF as a symbol of the bravery and elan of Southern fighting men. Whether their goal was wrong or misguided is irrelevant. For me, all I can “see” is water cannon, police dogs, KKK rallies and anti-civil rights riots in black and white on TV in the 1950s and 60s. Back in the early 1960s, I went along with the NCC basketball team to cover a game in IIRC Evansville, Indiana for the college newspaper. The team was denied service in a local restaurant because we had a black player, Willie Hoover from New York State. We were also denied housing in a local motel. So what should I remember? CW battlefields or my personal experience?

    As for the swastika, it was used at least 5,000 years before Hitler and the Nazis used it as a symbol of hate. For me, Brooks, it doesn’t matter that it was a symbol of good luck in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Or that it was a symbol of German nationalism. All I “see” are the photos of starving Jews in the concentration camps. Gruesome stuff.

    And as long as we’re talking about symbols, what about the cross? For centuries, it represented the most vicious form of capital punishment under the old Roman government, now entirely different. About 8 years ago, teachers at Columbia Teachers College were targeted. One, a Jewish professor, had a Swastika spray-painted on her office door. Another, a Black-American, had a noose posted on her office door. We haven’t really learned much, have we?

  6. Kristilyn Baldwin July 16, 2014 / 9:09 am

    Bob Nelson brings up a good point and demonstrates exactly the power (and problem) of symbols. Symbols are rooted in all forms of memory – historic, collective, cultural, individual. On the one hand, symbols carry a set of rules and meanings, which are understood collectively, making them nearly impossible to change without also changing the culture. On the other hand, symbols are tied to individual memory, which can be just as powerful in terms of experience and understanding, as Bob demonstrated. At the root of collective and individual symbology, however, is the same problem: how does one change the meaning of symbol without changing the minds of those who understand, or “remember”? The stark truth is, you don’t.

    And for people like Connie Chastain, the Virginian Flaggers, and this group of Swaztika defenders shown above, this is their fundamental flaw.

    Those like Bob, who personally experienced the Confederate flag as a symbol of hate will always remember it that way, just as much as the world experienced the Swaztika as the visual representation of Hitler’s genocide, despite it’s previous or subsequent possibilities. (For similar reasons no one referrs to the moustache as “The Chaplain.”)

    How do you kill an idea? Death can’t even accomplish such a task because even in death, the power of the symbol remains. Collective, cultural and historic memory has “lived on” defeating the hopes of change, even through a generational divide.

    It is as impractical (I’d argue impossible) to change the minds of the world’s majority who associates the Swaztika with genocide, as it is to change the minds of those who understand the Confederate flag as a symbols of slavery and racism.

    People like Connie Chastain and the Virginia Flaggers are simply fighting another Lost Cause, so to speak. No one outside their own cause will ever see the Confederate flag differently. I’m not saying they should give up their passionate fight, although I would suggest taking a different approach like, using logic, reason, evidence and reality. Personally, I believe it would be more promising (and I have to be careful here not to undermine my own argument) for Chastain and the Virginia Flaggers to approach their goal by declaring something like, “We understand that the Confederate flag has represented slavery and racism for the past 150 years and we would like to change it’s meaning to ______ for the future,” inserting whatever goal they may have, but please, for the love of all that is holy, do not insert “southern heritage” because that’s like saying “We’d like to change it’s future meaning to it’s past meaning.” Seriously, it’s like arguing with yourself. Just stop ignoring reality and aim to make real change. I still believe it’s an uphill battle, but at least the trajectory would be forward and not a continuous circle into past.

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