Who Owns a Symbol, if not a Nation(’s Pride)?

In 2014 Andrea1 went to Budapest Pride again. Dressed in a priest’s cassock, he blew bubbles and blessed the crowd from atop the float named as the “International Gay Lobby.” A piece of cardboard dangled in front of him—outlined with the shape of Greater Hungary, patterned with the red-and-white bars of the House of Árpád,2 and in the center of which a large cock was splashed that easily could be decoded as a biker. The result: two months of rabid harassment (online, at work, at home, etc.) and a civil lawsuit against him that eventually was dismissed.

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Budapest Pride, 2014. Photo: librarius.hu

Later generations have had little reason to be proud of John C. Calhoun. Although he served as vice-president under two American presidents, in addition to a distinguished career of public service, including a stint as a South Carolina senator, he hated the centralized state, opposed the Union, and called for the secession of the South. He believed slavery was morally justifiable—both from the slaveholders’ and the slaves’ points of view. He was recorded as saying in his infamous speech of 1837:

We of the South will not, cannot, surrender our institutions. To maintain the existing relations between the two races . . . is indispensable to the peace and happiness of both. But let me not be understood as admitting, even by implication, that the existing relations between the two races in the slaveholding States is an evil—far otherwise! . . .Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually.

Barely twenty years after Calhoun’s speech, South Carolina seceded from the Union and the Civil War began—its most memorable object being the stars and bars of the Confederate flag. In defeat, the Rebel flag became a proud symbol of the heroic death of countless southerners—and within a few years, it was appropriated as the symbol of the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacy. Thousands of racists and their organizations, clandestine or openly active, have worn and continue to wear it boldly, gathering strength and affirmation from the flag to this day.

Especially since 1962.

Then—during official commemorations of the Civil War Centenary that also signaled white “resistance” to the Black Civil Rights Movement—they raised the Rebel flag from the dome of the capitol in Columbia, South Carolina. Multiple protests, petitions, and attempts at referenda failed to make the flag disappear—until 2000 when the flag was at least moved from the capitol building to a flagstaff erected on the capitol’s lawn.

South Carolina  thus lent its institutional and moral support to those who seek to legitimize racism. For nearly fifty years, generations—black and white—have hurried past the flag and flagpole. Until one day in June last year when Bree Newsome, spotting the flag and tolerating its depressing image no more, climbed the pole and unhooked it.

The symbol which one boy posed with, the boy who murdered nine African-American people in cold blood at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC a week earlier.

The symbol that flew freely on the day when the procession of coffins of those murdered weaved through Charleston’s public spaces.

The symbol that President Obama defined in his funeral oration as a symbol of oppression, that he surely noticed leaving the site of the slaughter (and burial service) and glimpsing Charleston’s main square.

Bree Newsome had enough of the city clerks’ empty promises and took the matter into her own hands when she lowered to the ground the shroud evoking her ancestors’ enslavement. However, the essence of her act was not the flag’s actual removal, for as soon as she came down she was arrested and the flag was hoisted back up. . The significance of her actions lies in the image—which might also enlighten Hungarian observers—when she unhooked the flag from the top of the flagpole and waved it upon high. A black woman accomplished that—a woman who no longer could avoid those  members of her own generation who still try to oppress her. Instead, Bree Newsome decided to wrap the symbol of her oppressors in her hands, dignifying herself and black people in the process.

Following the Charleston church shooting and the subsequent uproar, the Confederate flag was finally removed from the lawn of South Carolina’s capitol in July 2015. What’s more, only one street in Charleston still bears Calhoun’s name, the same one where the Black congregation was slaughtered. And just one example of Calhoun’s statues remains, incidentally at an equal height with the church opposite. By now, just one of Yale’s twelve colleges dares to keep his name.

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Bree Newsome takes off the flag. Photo: Reuters Media Express/Adam Anderson Photos

 

***

Last year Andrea went to Budapest Pride again. Dressed in a priest’s cassock he blew bubbles and blessed the crowd from atop the float named as the “International Gay Lobby.” A piece of cardboard dangled in front of him—outlined with the shape of Greater Hungary, patterned with the red-and-white bars of the House of Árpád, and in the center of which was splashed a large cock/biker. The result: two months of rabid harassment (online, at work, at home, etc.) and a civil lawsuit against him that eventually was dismissed.

The debate surrounding the Árpád stripes has existed at least since the political transition of 1989. October 23, 1992, when then President Árpád Göncz’s was heckled,—marked the first instance of the Árpád flag being displayed in public. Both those who came with the flags, and those who stood on the sidelines, understood the natural self-evidence of waving an Árpád flag, for everyone knew its implicit purpose and meaning——this self-evidence, silent complicity, and the practice of letting it fly, is a familiar feeling to all to this day.

The flag-wavers appeal to Hungarian national pride and the nurturing of Hungary’s national heritage. By waving their flags, they mourn their losses. However, Hungarians who do not identify with the flag-wavers, if and when they chose to remember or care for national heritage, do not wave the Árpád flag. The red-and-white striped Árpád flag is actually a subcultural symbol, and in vain associated with the nation at large. Technically, it is the same mache identifying element, in a different form, like the Szekler anthem or Hungarian runes. That is why the people’s murderous rage against Andrea was especially troubling. Thus, if minority members like the flag-wavers would ever have to defend themselves for their attempts to gain mainstream approval and see their subcultural identity accepted as the “collective,” then they should be grateful that someone else handled the situation as a reality that they could only dream about.

Andrea committed no crime other than taking them seriously: indeed, if you really represent the majority, if flag-waving means that you become the representatives of some substantive quality of the nation (as the authentic representatives of “all Hungarians.”), then I must use you, I must take your symbols in order to be able to revise the inequality of my own minority. Of course, you also can answer that Andrea was mistaken and that the flag-wavers are no more than a heavy, dark, aggressive little group who represent only themselves, their frustrations, their hatred, and little else. Still, it is more exciting to see Andrea’s performance as an attempt to construct—through its usage—the meaning and content of the red-and-white Árpád flag that probably would never be recognizable without Andrea’s action.

I agree with Andrea when he said that his action was not deliberate provocation. Indeed, it is not.

Rather, he successfully reframed a minority symbol (and attitude), and in that respect took ownership. Andrea and Bree’s deeds share the fact that they both took certain symbols into their hands that were and continue to represent (but with different methods and intensity) the very kind of causes of people who continue the fight to oppress and discriminate against Bree and Andrea and make people like them second-class citizens. The difference in their actions lies in that Bree  rebuffed the symbol and destroyed its original meaning (and significance). Andrea used it, but he neither  rebuffed it nor destroyed it. By appropriating the flag, he made himself equal with the followers of the red-and-white Árpád stripe who speak in the name of the nation but who are unable to see the nation as a whole. So, if Andrea’s action was revolting—let’s forget about those who think that way— then it is revolting only in a sense that it enlightens the lie that the flag-wavers and followers of the Árpád stripe eagerly desire to hide but what is so patently clear. Quoting the poet: you might represent the motherfuckers, but you don’t represent my home.

 

The article was first published on tranzitblog.hu in July 2015 in Hungarian.
Translation: Tom Bass and Gábor Gyukics

 

About the author

Márton Gulyás is a Budapest-based civil activist, former managing director of Krétakör, a production agency that was formed from a theatre company. Founding member and manager of Human Platform, an umbrella organization that unites professional associations, NGOs, and individuals working in the field of health care, culture, education and social care. He is the editor of the political videoblog Slejm (Mucus – Politics Stuck In the Throat) that thematizes various topics of public interest with a special focus on the current government’s authoritarian, anti-democratic  modus operandi  as well as its corruption.

 

Notes:

 

  1.  LGBT Italian activist and queer artist Andrea Giuliano lived in Budapest for eight years and was an active participant in Budapest Pride in the past five years. His antics have landed him in the media before, but after a (the) provocative parody of a nationalist group in 2014, Giuliano has received countless threats, had to temporarily leave work, and was forced to move three times, in addition to several other temporary shelters. To add insult to injury, the group he parodied sued Giuliano for defamation. Read more on vice.com
  2. The logo paraphrased the emblem of Bikers for National Pride, a far-right group in Hungary. The logo of this group supporting revisionist ideas, along with many other on the extreme right, uses the pre-1919 map of so-called Greater Hungary. The heraldry of the founding Árpád dynasty of historical Hungary is one of the elements of the national coat of arms. The bikers use the red-and-white stripes of the House of Árpád with a stylized biker pasted in its center. The red-and-white stripes were appropriated by the Nazi Arrow Cross Party in the 20th century in Hungary.

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