I don’t normally comment here on current events, at least ones that don’t involve North Korea. But the killing of nine worshipers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and an image of gunman Dylann Roof from his Facebook page, has prompted me to comment.
First, a little bit about images. One of the reasons I pay attention to North Korean media, and tend to discount speculation about events in North Korea from those outside the country, is that outsiders simply do not know very much. But the images, when examined thoughtfully, can tell us some things.
For example, after Kim Jong Un became supreme leader, following the death of his father Kim Jong Il, the Korean Central News Agency ran a series of stories featuring Kim Jong Un visiting military bases and embracing soldiers, sailors, and air force pilots. It was sappy and even a little silly looking.
But, how do you convince a nation that a 27-year-old (allegedly) who rose out of nowhere is fit to be the “father of the nation?” Easy — you show him physically caring for people. Even as the image didn’t tell us much, it told us a lot. We can get past mindless speculation (did Kim really kill his uncle with hungry wild dogs, or a mortar round, or an anti-aircraft gun? Does he like fancy cheese and Swiss cigarettes?) into seeing what the pictures themselves are communicating.
Which gets us to Dylan Roof. The photo from his Facebook feed is that of a sullen, and even angry, teenager in a black jacket with a couple of flags on it:
Specifically, the flag of apartheid-era South Africa. And below it, the flag of Ian Smith’s self-proclaimed white supremacist state of Rhodesia.
Now, some symbols are affectations. A friend from high school noted that a British flag, or even an anarchy patch, is an aesthetic affectation. They say something of the aesthetic preferences of the wearer. The young mod wearing the British flag is not likely swearing allegiance to Queen Elizabeth. (I hope I remembered that righ, because it has been a long time…) And the wearer of the anarchy pin or patch likely hasn’t given the “A” much real consideration. It likely means, at most, loud and angry music.
I would even go so far as to say the
Stars and Bars the Confederate battle flag is an affectation, at least for white people who wear it. (I’m not denying the hateful potency of the symbol for black and brown folks, but merely saying many white people who embrace the battle flag do so for reasons that have little to do with overt racism.) It may say something about the politics of the wearer (or their personality), but mostly I suspect it tells us more about the wearer’s cultural and aesthetic preferences than it does their social and political views: the music they listen to, what they do and consume to have fun, who they think they are. (And aren’t.) It may be adopted consciously as a racist symbol by the wearer, but it doesn’t have to be. Especially if adopted carelessly and thoughtlessly, through a kind-of cultural osmosis. Because frequently, cultural affectations can be picked up carelessly or thoughtlessly, something adopted because those around have adopted them or they strike someone’s fancy.
Now a swastika, and most Nazi imagery, is more than an affectation. It cannot (or cannot easily) be adopted carelessly, simply because one is surrounded by people who wear it. It is not omnipresent in American society, and carries a fair amount of stigma in polite society. So, a swastika tells us something about the politics and worldview of the wearer, and not simply their aesthetic or cultural preferences, because it has to be very consciously and purposefully adopted.
Which gets us to Roof’s flags. These are not affectations. Thought and purpose had had to go into their adoption. Especially that Rhodesian flag, which is the symbol of one of the most repugnant and racist regimes of the post-WW2 era. It’s an obscure flag — I didn’t recognize it at first — and thus he had to do some work. Rhodesia didn’t strike Roof’s fancy, white supremacy mostly likely struck Roof’s fancy. The kind of methodical and brutal (and ironically, doomed) white supremacy that was Ian Smith’s Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa.
There is, unhappily, a subculture in America that venerates the days of white rule in southern Africa, particularly Rhodesia, but also Portuguese Angola and Mozambique, and especially looks longingly to the Rhodesian Armed Forces as a heroic example from a bygone era. It is tiny, very marginal, and once upon a time spent its days slobbering over feature articles and firsthand accounts in Soldier of Fortune magazine, and frankly is populated more by idle dreamers than actual doers.
Well, until yesterday.
The picture tells us a lot. Roof has communicated a great deal in this image. He has told us what he admires, and how he thinks the world should be organized. Who matters, and who doesn’t, and why. And he told us these things some time (though how long I am not certain) before he walked into an AME church and killed nine people.
My friend asked an interesting question, one I hope pundits, reporters, and police investigators will ask for some weeks to come — Did Roof wear these flags in public? Why didn’t anyone notice the flags, and what they meant, and say something? Or do something? What did the adults around Roof know and believe that he thought it was okay for him to wear the symbols of two white supremacist regimes — history Roof had to actually go dig out and find in order to learn?
There may be other questions too, I do not know.