Symbols in American progressivism

At one corner of Madison, Wisconsin’s Capitol Square, a statue of a Civil War soldier defines the place where two sidewalks meet. Facing east, the sculpture of Hans Christian Heg has watched thousands of frozen and gently summery sunrises over Lake Monona. In a recent act of guerrilla art, or just informal civic education, someone chalked the words I didn’t die at Chickamauga so teachers could lose their pensions at the base of Colonel Heg’s pedestal.

This is exactly the sort of thing American progressives need to do more often — reclaim their history and harness the power of symbols. Heg, a Norwegian-born immigrant who was brought to the United States as a child and became an ardent abolitionist as an adult, would have been a target for Scott Walker and the rest of the Republican Party today. So let’s not be over-careful about “desecrating” markers of history with our present-day concerns; chances are, Heg would have been a full-throated supporter of this and other similar protests.

Which is good, because more such protests are part and parcel of a healthy democratic public sphere.

The statue of Hans Christian Heg, via Wisconsin State Capitol / Flickr

The statue of Hans Christian Heg, via Wisconsin State Capitol / Flickr

Outdoor public space has always been politically charged. It was no coincidence that the 1963 March on Washington culminated between the twin poles of the Lincoln Memorial and the US Capitol: the organizers were trying to tell the nation that African-American civil rights were fully worthy of being honored in these civic temples, that the long stretch of the National Mall was not an esplanade for white civil servants to picnic on while the black majority of the city suffered poverty and constant hostility from the quasi-colonial local government on up.

The Republican party and its handmaidens peddle a fraudulent version of American history — one that they are writing into all of our textbooks. Religious right figures like David Lane have pushed a vision of America as God’s chosen nation and messianic force, and succeeded in changing education policy in at least some states (notably Texas). Lane said in 2008, “What we’re doing is the mobilization of pastors and pews to restore America to her Judeo-Christian heritage. That’s our goal.”

The damage a fundamentalist vision of history can do is plain. The good news is that there is plenty of material in United States history that can inspire people engaged in movements of social progress and resistance to tyranny. We should mine this material more aggressively, for we need it to complete our movements. Arguments for progressive change cannot be solely based on technocratic rationalism, or they will fail to gain traction outside of elite circles. People (even non-religious folks — ask a Star Wars nut) respond to symbols and archetypes that remind them of their own struggles, however indirectly. Modern Americans live in a forest of symbols that cannot be ignored without peril.

There are many sites commemorating heroic causes across our country, often in urban areas, just like Heg’s statue. They should be rallying points for progressives. Also, we might do well to exchange some of our more rarefied theorizing about justice for simple but powerful visual symbols. For example, in the revolutionary “JOIN OR DIE” flag of the 1770s, the snake, chopped up but awaiting reintegration, stood for a complicated set of ideas about liberty, colonial unity, and self-determination. That flag was as effective as any number of philosophical treatises (including the Declaration of Independence) in forging a sense of American identity. And today, there are probably some union organizers who could benefit from the power of this symbol or a related one, in a time when workers are already under such immiseration that they don’t have time to read Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century and all the academic discourse surrounding it.

Skye Winspur is a 33 year old Wisconsinite who spends his days working with his hands and volunteering for causes he believe in. He writes on civil rights issues; gay history and culture; political campaigns of all kinds; Christian theology; and movies.

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