The Semiotics of American Rage
Wednesday, January 6, 2021, is a day Americans won't soon forget. Many of us watched in great disbelief as an angry mob seized the U.S. Capitol Building, marching from a rally where the 45th president gave an 'insurrection-inspiring' speech. The United States Capitol Building, the seat of American democracy, has played as the backdrop for many marches in Washington D.C. Some good, some bad. This one was bad, but not the first disturbing gathering of protesters. On August 8, 1925, the Ku Klux Klan marched down Pennsylvania Avenue protesting equal rights for African Americans, immigrants, and Jews. While they didn't storm the Capitol Building, the mere sight of an army of white robes was dreadful. Almost one hundred years later, the January 6th rally/mob/insurrection was frightfully jarring, turning extremely violent and deadly, presenting a clear indication that America has not reconciled with her racist past.
The rage of America's domestic terrorists brought on a sea of signs, symbols, and slogans that gave us a visual reminder of historic violence in our nation and the death of millions at home and abroad. After listening to countless news reports and reading way too much about the 'take over' I decided to watch a CNN special report, The Faces of the Trump Insurrection. Instead of listening to the grisly details of the event again, I decided to mute the volume and just watch. Without narration, the rage was clear and present. Most striking was the number of American flags, red MAGA hats, and signs that read 'stop the steal', 'Trump-Pence 2020', and 'Q' (for QAnon). None of it surprising, but very unsettling to watch them storm the Capitol Building. Flags that read 'don't tread on me', 'keep America great', 'America first', Confederate flags, nooses, and shirts that read 'proud boys', 'oath keepers', '6MWNE', and 'Camp Auschwitz, Work Brings Freedom' were all apart of the violent narrative.
20th-century Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, the founder of semiology, later called semiotics, believed in the social science of signs. He believed signs carried meaning, the interpretation of signs, and the relationship between visual cues and concepts, what he called the signifier and the signified. Applying Saussure's theories to January 6th, it becomes more clear that supporters of the 45th President, who illegally stormed the United States Capitol Building, proudly represent the atrocities of the U.S. Civil War and WWII, the ugliness of Jim Crow, the hate for the Black Lives Matter Movement, the anger towards immigrants, anti-semitic hostility, and the misunderstanding of true American democracy. The signs they held onto did not represent the good of our American government and our fragile democracy. Just like the words of the president matter, so do the signs, symbols and, slogans of his angry supporters. It matters because waving a flag and wearing a t-shirt with racist, hateful slogans will not make America great again, it only makes America look awful. What we witnessed reminds us that the fight for justice continues.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "Hate can not drive out hate; only love can do that." Hate, division, anger, and rage will not solve our nation's ills or undo our damaged history. What is important now is that we remember this moment and that we accurately record the events as we saw them so that history gives a full account of the truth and not the lie.
Photo credits: KKK Rally, 1925 Washington D.C., Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division and January 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol, Spencer Platt/Getty Images