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THE POWER OF SYMBOLS AND THE DANGERS THEY PORTEND

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Editorial by Nickolas Marinelli

It occurred to me recently that it’s been a while since I’ve seen this symbol displayed in the Italian Community. I attend quite a few Italian functions, but I don’t see this once-prevalent Italian symbol very much anymore. Nobody is flying this flag from their home or their Italian club; nobody is wearing it on a tee shirt or a baseball cap. I don’t even see it on lapel pins anymore. I can’t help but wonder why that is.

There was a time when Italians in San Francisco proudly displayed this symbol. It represented the new political party of their ancestral homeland, and the new leader who was restoring pride in that homeland. For the first time, Italy was being taken seriously on the world stage. Not only that, but the trains were running on time, too. This symbol represented the party and the man who Italians in San Francisco admired because he was making them proud to be Italian.

The man was Benito Mussolini, and the symbol was the flag of the National Fascist Party. The flag was the premier symbol of Italian Fascism, and San Francisco Italians rallied around that symbol like bees to pollen.

One doesn’t need to have an advanced degree in history to know that things didn’t work out so well for the Fascists or for their leader. Twenty years after Mussolini came to power, his term of office ended abruptly when he was summarily executed, and his body was hung by a meat hook from the roof of a Milanese gas station.

Of course, many years before Mussolini’s inauspicious fall from power, Italians in San Francisco had already turned their backs on both the man and his party. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, lines were clearly drawn, and nobody in the community would so much as speak the Italian language, much less display the symbol of the Fascist Party of Italy. Even the chief promoter of Mussolini and Fascism in the Italian Community—newspaper publisher Ettore Patrizi—quietly packed away his black shirt and began to whistle Yankee Doodle Dandy.

I guess that explains why I don’t see this symbol in our Italian Community so much anymore. It’s a symbol of a dark period in history for both Italians and Italian-Americans. We’d all rather forget that dark period because, in the end, it was a failure—not to mention that a whole lot of people lost their lives, liberty, and property because of what that flag symbolized.

The terror attack on a group of people gathered in a church in South Carolina has recently brought national attention to another symbol: the symbol of a failed rebellion against the United States of America. That rebellion utilized guns, too—a whole lot of guns. It also resulted in an unimaginable loss of life—the greatest loss of life on American soil before or since.

For some inexplicable reason, however, the symbol of that armed insurrection against our nation—the Confederate Battle Flag—is still flying high over the state capitol of the exact same state where the aforementioned insurrection began, and where a terrorist claimed the lives of nine of our fellow citizens this week.

As coincidence would have it, that same symbol of white supremacy just happened to have been proudly worn by the terrorist who committed his unspeakable crimes against nine innocent people—peaceful people who posed no threat to him or to anyone else. As a matter of fact, the only thing those nine people had ever done to the man was to welcome him into their church.

The flimsy excuse often given by the proponents of this symbol of hate is that it represents their “heritage.” That may be true, but exactly what heritage is that? They will tell you that it is their proud heritage of fighting for states’ rights, but they rarely go on to talk about exactly which rights the states were fighting for.

Lest this nonsensical rhetoric cloud the issue, let’s be clear:  the primary right for which these states were fighting was the right to maintain an economic system based on the systematic enslavement of kidnapped Africans and their descendants.

Whatever else they may have diluted themselves into believing they were fighting for, the fact remains that what they were really fighting for was nothing more than white supremacy and black enslavement. And their symbol—not just the symbol of their treasonous rebellion itself, but the symbol of their willingness to slaughter anyone who did not agree with their white supremacist doctrine—was the Confederate Battle Flag.

This year we quietly marked the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. We collectively like to think of that war as past history. We believe that we have moved beyond the idea of white people thinking they are superior to black people. After all, we are half a century into a new era where we as white people ever-so-generously have granted black people civil rights, as if we had the power to grant or withhold these rights by virtue of some divine gift. We like to think that the time when murder and violence against people based solely on their skin color are things of the past. We like to think it’s all over.

But it’s not.

As Italians and Italian-Americans, we have moved away from the dark part of our history that was Fascism. Without anyone having to tell us to stop displaying symbols of Fascism, we instinctively and collectively refrained from doing so. We recognize that that young people who have not lived through dark periods of history are sometimes prone to be attracted by an idealized fantasy of such movements, and can, in ignorance, embrace symbols of hatred and oppression from the past. That’s why we choose not to countenance such displays.

Not only do we not display symbols of Fascism, neither do we allow the display of the symbols of the Third Reich or ISIS or Al Queda. We would be appalled by the site of such symbols, and would raise our voices in opposition to their display.

So why do we tolerate the display of this horrid symbol of American white supremacy? South Carolina may be 3,000 miles away, but it’s common knowledge that you don’t have to travel more than a county or two away to see this symbol being commonly and proudly displayed.

And lest we think that it’s just a flag or just a harmless redneck fetish, consider this: the armed rebellion against the United States that claimed 620,000 American lives—which was symbolized by the Confederate Battle Flag—ended a century and a half ago. But just this week, an ignorant, hate-filled white supremacist bearing that same symbol murdered nine people for no reason other than the color of their skin.

As long as that vile symbol of white supremacy flutters in the breeze anywhere in our nation, as long as it is worn on a tee shirt or a baseball cap or allowed to be displayed unchallenged at any time or at any place in our country, as long as we stand idly by and do nothing to eliminate that symbol once and for all, we will be subject to its terrible and dreadful power. It will be we who will bear responsibility for the actions of the next white supremacist who holds a gun in one hand and the Confederate Battle Flag in the other.

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