On the Pitfalls of Symbolic Politics
A few days ago, Quaker Oats announced it would retire its 130-year-old brand of pancake syrup and breakfast foods, Aunt Jemima. The company acknowledged that the Aunt Jemima character was based on a racial stereotype. In the aftermath of the decision, other companies, among them Mars Food, followed suit announcing that it was time to modify trademarks that could be seen as promoting racial stereotypes. Mars Foods owns Uncle Ben’s Rice, which, unlike Aunt Jemima, is readily available in European supermarkets.
The case of Aunt Jemima is part of the current wave of symbolic politics that is sweeping Western democracies, from the United States to Switzerland. In the latter, one of the country’s two major supermarket chains recently decided to no longer sell a popular confectionary named Moorenkopf — Moor’s head. In the United Kingdom, similar to the United States, symbolic politics centers upon the removal of statues celebrating historical figures, such as Cecil Rhodes at Oxford University, whose claim to fame and wealth was based on robbing Africa blind.
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On June 17, governors of Oriel College voted to remove the controversial statue after weeks of global anti-racism protests finally pushed this 5-year-long campaign to completion — perhaps hoping to avoid the fate of the statue of another philanthropist slave trader, Edward Colston, that met its end in Bristol harbor earlier this month. This is a wise decision, but one that opens up a number of important questions, which glaringly expose the pitfalls of this kind of symbolic politics.
For Consistency’s Sake
To be consistent, the university should also abolish the scholarship associated with the Rhodes name. In fact, the university should use the funds to make restitution to the descendants of those who suffered at the hands of British imperialism rather than lavishing them upon white men like Bill Clinton and George Stephanopoulos.
When I was at MIT, several of my professors were Ford scholars. The Ford Foundation was created in 1936 by Edsel and Henry Ford with the intention of advancing human welfare. Unfortunately enough, as William S. Dietrich writes in the Pittsburgh Quarterly, Henry Ford also was “a bitter opponent of organized labor, an anti-Semite, a mentally abusive father and a fickle autocrat.”” Hitler had a portrait of Henry Ford in his office in Munich, and he was the only American to receive praise in the führer’s magnum opus, “Mein Kampf.” Not entirely surprisingly, the other major “world leader,” Donald Trump, also praised Ford, this time for his descendants’ “good blood.” What does that mean for all those prominent professors who proudly hold academic chairs associated with an avowed and unrepentant anti-Semite?
Over the past several decades, I have devoted most of my professional life to the study of radical right-wing populism. In the process, I also studied 19th-century American populism. One of its central figures was Tom Watson, a lawyer from Georgia, who in 1896 was the populist candidate for vice president on the William Jennings Bryan ticket. Tom Watson was known for his efforts to include African Americans in the populist movement that, for a short period of time, rocked the American establishment in the 1880s and 1890s. Bryan lost, and Watson increasingly fell prey to resentment and recriminations, primarily directed against African American voters, who he charged with having been bought by Southern Democrats to prevent genuine reform.
In the process, Watson increasingly adopted anti-black racism, anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism. And yet, until recently, Georgia’s state capitol in Atlanta featured a large-scale monument dedicated to Watson. In 2013, it was removed from the capitol grounds and moved to an adjacent park, behind a locked gate. And yet, Tom Watson was a major figure in a political movement that paved the ground for the progressive policies of FDR’s New Deal.
It is certainly easy to point fingers at the United States. Europeans, however, have no reason to be condescending or, worse, to take the moral high ground. Europeans have had a hard time coming to terms with their history — if they even made an attempt. Take the case of Italy. When I taught in Rome, I was flabbergasted to encounter the ubiquity of fascism. In Germany, if you did not know that at one point there was a Third Reich, you would not be aware of it — except, ironically, in parts of what used to be communist East Berlin where the Nazi ministries were located.
In Italy, the traces of fascism can be found throughout the country, from Rome to Milan, from Florence to Aosta. In Rome, the arguably most prominent memory of fascism is that obelisk in front of Rome’s Olympic stadium — nowadays a football stadium — proudly proclaiming “Mussolini Dux.” Given fascism’s history of racism and colonial horrors, one might presume that Italy’s left-wing governments would have made an effort to have it removed. They haven’t. I cannot but conjecture why this might be the case.
In Western Europe, racism is predominantly associated with anti-Semitism. Given the centrality of the Holocaust in our history and European countries’ role in it, this is hardly surprising. Italian fascism’s attitude toward Jews was highly complex and ambiguous. Mussolini himself derived much of his thinking from his Jewish mistress, Margherita Sarfatti. At the foundations of the National Fascist Party, Jews were well represented in the movement, some of them holding leading positions. In fact, at one point in the 1920s, leading Nazis dismissed Italian Fascism as a “Judeo-fascist” state. In comparison, fascist Italy’s atrocities committed in Africa have largely been neglected, if only, I suppose, because it would fundamentally challenge Italian self-perceptions of decency in the face of absolute evil.
Today, it seems, tackling the pernicious reality of everyday racism means above all erasing its most egregious symbols such as statues honoring loathsome historical figures who, at one point in their lives, morphed into benefactors of the community. There is nothing wrong with this. The fact that statues of Cecil Rhodes at Oxford and David de Pury in the Swiss town of Neuchâtel, who until recently honored as a great benefactor of the city, have become objects of public awareness and scorn is a positive development. Whether or not their removal will have a noticeable impact, only time will tell. I am skeptical. The impact of colonialism and racial denigration is deeply engrained in Western popular culture.
In Germany, discourse analysts have shown to what extent words and terms from the Nazi period are part of everyday language, even if most Germans are oblivious to the origins. At the same time, in Germany, as elsewhere in Western Europe, there is a fundamental lack of sensitivity with respect to everyday racial stereotypes that permeate popular culture. Take, for instance, the name Zum Moor (at the Moor’s) which continues to grace inns, restaurants and hotels. An inn in the city of Halle in former East Germany, for instance, even displays the silhouette of a Moor on its logo.
And it is certainly not the only one of its kind. In Salzburg, for instance, a prominent restaurant is also called Zum Mohren, ironically located in the Judengasse (Jews’ lane). In the same city, you can also find the Café Mohr, which prominently displays the stereotypical caricature of a Moor delivering a pot of coffee. These are egregious examples of the lack of sensitivity that permeates Western European culture.
And yet, historically minded critics have noted that the name is not necessarily meant to be degrading. In fact, in Switzerland, a number of communities display the head of a Moor in their coat of arms. A typical case of latent racism? Not really. It is a reference is to Saint Maurice, a Roman soldier of African origins, put to death because he converted to Christianity. In Switzerland, Saint Maurice is the patron saint of two cantons (in one of them, Valais, a town is named after the saint) and otherwise appreciated as a patron saint of a number of professions. In short, not everything is necessarily what it appears to be.
Gone With the Wind
Symbolic politics is a tricky business, fraught with snares and pitfalls. Take, for instance, the recent decision by HBO Max to remove the Oscar-winning 1939 epic, “Gone With the Wind,” from its fil library. The portrayal of the South during the Civil War is fraught with racial stereotypes and prejudice. The film glorifies antebellum South, feeding into the nostalgia of a significant part of the South that always refused — and still refuses — to come to terms with the horrors of slavery.
At the same time, however, it confronts contemporary viewers with a depiction of a reality, which might, I would hope, leave the viewers uncomfortable and force them to confront their own prejudices. If that were the case, the film would do more than any academic article on the subject, which only a few people read anyway.
And a second point: “Gone With the Wind” marks a turning point in Hollywood history. It was the first time that an African American won an Oscar: Hattie McDaniel as best supporting actress for her portrayal of Mammy, the head slave at Tara. Variety magazine characterized her performance at the time, particularly in one of the most emotional scences in the movie, “as one of those inspirational bits of histrionics long remembered.” Pulling the film from the list also means removing the performance of one of America’s strongest and most talented actresses from memory.
It is to be hoped that when HBO Max returns “Gone With the Wind” to its listing, this time together “with a discussion of its historical context and a denouncement of those very depictions,” the discussion will not only be about the horrifying reality of black life in the antebellum South, but also about the reality of black life throughout the United States — even of those rich and famous — in the first half of the 20th century.
Hattie McDaniel might have received recognition for her work on the silver screen, but even at the Oscar ceremony she was treated with disdain. Instead of being seated with the other Oscar-nominated actors and actresses, she was forced to sit at the far end of the hall — and this after the film director had been pulling strings to allow her to be admitted to the “no blacks allowed” Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. And things did not stop there. When the actress passed away in 1952, her last wish, to be buried in Hollywood Cemetery, was denied, given the color of her skin.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with symbolic politics — as long as it is not used to make everybody feel better while nothing really changes. As the old Italian adage goes, everything has to change for everything to stay the same. Symbolic politics deserves our full support if it leads to real, tangible changes in the life chances of ordinary disadvantaged people: higher wages, better health care, easier access to loans, effective measures to deal with drug use. The list is long. So far, this has hardly ever happened. Perhaps this time it will be different.
*[The Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right is a partner institution of Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.