Substance Matters More Than Symbols
The current wakeup call being experienced by more Americans about historic racism is leading to hopeful actions but if all that results is removal of symbolic remnants of a wretched past these may lead to very little substantial change of the present and future. The rush to remove statues, change street names, remove written distortions of history and denounce past individuals wont mean much if we don’t confront the debased political economic system that is the substance on which those symbols rest and which creates present reality that still only profits a small minority at increasingly dangerous cost to the great majority.
Building a monument to Martin Luther King or Malcolm X to replace those previously honoring slave owners among the original 1% might be wonderful but will only mean new places for birds to leave their droppings unless we make far more substantial changes in the system that makes good use of symbols, even profiting from their creation and service, while maintaining the social and environmental destruction of private profit capitalism.
Changing the name of Wall Street to Open Border Boulevard wont mean much if we maintain it as a citadel of billions for minority capital that comes from the backs, minds and pocketbooks of majority workers.
Renaming the Pentagon the Emma Goldman building won’t make a dime’s bit of difference if we continue using it as headquarters for spending more than 700 billion dollars a year on war and mass murder while raping language in calling that defense.
Tearing down a statue of Columbus might make a minority among us feel good but the majority of us need to understand that his voyage was not financed by mythological royalty but by early capital in its desire for spreading commerce to new markets. Those 15th century economic powers were on their way to becoming global and have grown tremendously since then, now ruling the planet with massive power and control in the 21st century. They will not be contested by tumbling a monument or burning a flag or taking a knee before it in more polite protest.
We need to learn real history in order to change the present and future, not simply destroy or rename symbols like statues and buildings and streets. The system that must be confronted and radically changed for the good of all people is the one that profited from slavery in the past, and massive bloody violence before and since slavery which continues up to the minute with more threatened as idiot servants of wealth claim villainy all around us with distractions that make their lies inaudible and our dangerous reality all but invisible. We may be helped inspirationally by destroying some symbols and even creating new ones, but the major work must be done on the substance of reality and not its representations and cosmetically false history lessons.
Symbols can play a vital role in many of our lives, whether national, religious or even more personal, but no one can pay the rent or mortgage by giving the landlord a flag or the bank a Koran, Menorah or four-leaf clover, nor feed a family by leaving a statue of Jesus at the CVS, Costco or Trader Joe’s checkout line. Until we change the political economic foundation of the society from a private profit first focus which approaches moral fanaticism to a humane placing of the public good as primary before any private gain, updating the books at a library or the art at a museum will only benefit those able to attend libraries and museums now, but we need to make a difference in the housing and feeding and health care of a population so that all can attend and benefit from libraries and museums in the future.
The anti-democratic political economics of war and injustice that are the foundation of capitalism must be radically changed from its roots, and confronting its history is not only important but critical to really changing the future in substance and not simply in its symbols. At the present moment of more glaring breakdowns in the economy reflected in a health care system that makes primitive societies look at least morally superior, and with national leadership idiotically lashing out at Russia, China and a growing global population finding the USA the most dangerous power in the world, a desire to confront historical lies is important. But of far greater consequence is the creation of a material truth that is a complete, and not only in specific but all circumstances, break with the inhuman aspects of reality that are leading to serious crises not only in health and markets but in planetary survival itself.
And attacks on speech and the labeling of too many things as “hate crimes” are hardly a healthy reaction to past disgraceful language and especially brutal treatment of humanity. In fact, such actions are in perfect keeping with the worst aspects of a society and culture the anti-speech crowds are supposedly against. Treating some nose-picking intellectuals as brilliant creators of self-lobotomies and some market hustlers as revolutionaries for gaining lucrative incomes by indulging in establishment acceptable speech and teaching are not just symbolic but substantial efforts to smother the demand for real change under a blanket of reactionary practice using language of the present to strengthen systems of the past.
What’s most important for sincere advocates of change to understand is the fact that during the current capitalist pandemic-economic crisis, more than 45 million Americans have filed for unemployment insurance and at the same time 29 Americans have become members of the billionaire brigade which now numbers nearly 700 people. That’s in a nation of nearly 350 million people. If that describes a democratic republic, then everyone having cancer describes a healthy public.
Those who find such incredible economic disparities tolerable will probably find the new markets for symbols to replace old ones lucrative forms of advancing their own class privileges. The rest of us need to join together in transforming every aspect of our political economy to one that works for peace, justice and humanity, and choose our symbols later, after we’ve seen to everyone’s right to food, clothing, shelter, and an environment assuring a healthy future for all and not just some. Chains, whether enclosing our bodies or our minds, need to be broken, in substance.