Sometimes We Need a Totem

“It is the cause, not the death, that makes the martyr.” Napoleon Bonaparte

There have been a few recent news stories that have caught the collective attention of our world and the local response to them has been consistent: violent backlash or fervent support. What I find even more interesting are the individuals who in all of their pseudo-enlightenment have found that we recently identified and attach meaning to things that didn’t before have meeting. One person even so went to call those of us caught in the social justice whirlwind ‘sheep’.  I wanted to explore this in depth because I am not a Welshman and sheep is not a positive word be associated with as far as I am concerned.

The recent stories I mention are in fact the recent act of domestic terrorism in Charleston and the senseless slaughter of Cecil the Lion. One for more obvious reasons is closer to my heart than another but I found myself fairly equally outraged and angry about both cruel acts of violence.

The fallout from the Charleston Shooting has been a national resounding choice to remove the images of Confederate pride from our national monuments. The South has long since prided itself on being Confederate and in Alabama there are still holidays that involve bank closures to “celebrate” such “brave Americans”. (I wish I was joking.) These images of a happily forgotten era of American history have been en masse removed and with the removal of the symbolism of American racial tension sparked the uglier side of the debate: those that wanted to keep the flag. Now as an African-American, I’m well aware of the fact that this flag is the symbol of Southern racism but I admit it’s a part of our history and to borrow a term now more commonly used it was simply on the wrong side of history. I will not glorify it but it was once a part of our nation’s past and an aspect of our nation’s continued complex racial legacy. Since the conversation shifted from the domestic terrorist and his racism to the flag and its passive racism, the symbol quickly outgrew the news story that caused the tragedy.

The other story I wanted to discuss was Cecil the Lion. This was Zimbabwe’s most treasured lion and a prized research subject. He was large, beautiful and a national treasure. And then a dentist decided to go hunting. Cecil was baited out of his national reserve, shot with an arrow, left to wander around in pain and then put out of his misery only to be turned into a trophy for one small man’s overcompensation. Now as a Darwinist, I am merely concerned about what time I could ever have the desire, need or want to hunt a lion but it was still a senseless slaughter of an endangered species and was done with dubious logic, practice and little concern for the majestic beast’s importance or agency.

Now these are two unrelated symbols but they both illustrate how quickly a wider conversation can focus in on one thing. Our collective sorrow over a horrible act of domestic terrorism was hyper-focused on the racist symbol that helped fuel the racist desires of one disturbed man. A lion that was baited out of his national reserve and slaughtered brought into focus a greater worry of man’s destruction of nature and how corruption puts animals in danger. The Confederate Flag and Cecil the Lion became totems for their causes. These totems exist in a world when many finally begin to accept that they can be agents of change. I am a Southern girl, I never thought I’d see the day when the Confederate flag would finally be vilified the way it is. I never thought such a thing would happen. I didn’t think it was possible. So while I think the focus on the flag is a bit misguided the discussion it has sparked is necessary, important and long overdue. Cecil the Lion’s death brought to light the issue of poaching which many Americans were aware of but assumed that it was a foreign problem: it wasn’t our concern so there was little we could do about it. Now this is our problem and we have to face it and likely now there will be changed though I wish that change didn’t involve the death of a lion first. I don’t think any of us are sheep for our support of the totems now attached to these events and many a great cause needed a dramatic event to boost their legitimacy. Think of the Spanish-Filipino War. It gained support with the meme “Remember the Maine, To Hell with Spain!” and thus the ‘sinking’ of a ship helped sell a war domestically that was practically assured internationally and solidified the legacy of American imperialism.

As a writer I am always more concerned with people being interested in a topic rather than why they’re interested in the topic. I agree that the new totems attached to these movements are arbitrary and it could have been a rhino, elephant or giraffe that bolstered us to shame a dentist and save lions. It could have been any other violent act that could have caused the bubbling over of racial tension in this country because it has been a long simmering topic; it just happened to be this senseless act of violence.

If this feels like a rant to you, dear reader, it in a way is. It bothered me greatly that these causes are being jeered because of a popular groundswell and while yes some of it is a bit uninformed (all causes have that) there are much bigger issues at the heart of this. More importantly, I believe most of the outraged public is aware that these issues are about more than just an old racist flag and a dead lion.

If you choose a cause, fantastic. Be proud of your cause and whatever got you to support that cause and having a cause popular symbols or not are in fact Descartes’ grand proof: no matter what you are, you are a thinking thing and that cannot be taken away from you and thought is the opposite of being a mindless sheep. Thought is abstract and sometimes it needs to be grounded so we’ll use these as totems and with their strength and begin to fix the problems behind these causes.

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