Notes on the Atrocities
Like a 100-watt radio station, broadcasting to the dozens...

Sunday, June 15, 2003  


Symbol (n) [from the Greek sumbolon: mark, token] 1. a thing conventionally regard as typifying, representing, or recalling something. (Oxford)

Flag day is an odd thing. Other national holidays more obviously celebrate events or people--New Year's, MLK jr. Day--or concepts, as in Labor or Memorial Day. But for Flag Day we ritually celebrate a symbol. The flag, after all, represents the US. But we have a holiday for that--Independence Day. For flag day we honor not the country but one of the country's symbols.

(Presumably, this means the positive elements of our liberal democracy--our Constitution, freedoms, government and so on. Yet we don't hold that opinion when we see the flags of other nations. China's, for example, reminds us more of the government's repression than its original, pure fidelity to human equality. Likewise, one could argue that the flag represents the whole of America, too--the Bill of Rights as well as slavery; the liberation of Europe and the horrors of Vietnam, and so on.)

The US has always regarded its own government with something of the awe afforded to religion, and flag day is a psychological tell to this tendency. The flag, as representation of the sacred faith, is itself worthy of veneration. Normally we don't confuse the symbol with the thing it's symbolizing--tearing a picture in half is not like killing the person in the portrait. But that's not the case with the flag. For Americans, the flag is itself more than dyed and sewn cotton fiber. It is somehow imbued with the very sacred nature of the country.

When the founding fathers cleared the continent of timber and Indians, they built a society based on values, rather than race. This may not have been the first such occasion, but it was certainly a rare thing. America's self-image has always been one of values: founded by "the people"--equal, not part of a medieval caste system--who wanted to create a more perfect union celebrating life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It was a country of beliefs, not heritage. Though those beliefs have always been open to interpretation, the nature of being an American means only a belief in these ideas--nothing else is required.

It's a strange quirk then that the religion of most of the early citizens in this country-of-ideas had an almost identical theology: it doesn't matter who you are or where you came from, just what you believe. The result was an emotional response to the beliefs of the country that mirrored the emotion people felt for their Protestant Christianity. Subsequent democracies, borrowing almost wholesale from the US Constitution, resisted this identification--partly because they hadn't knitted the country together solely from the fabric of thought, partly because they had other, pre-existing self-images about what it meant to be, say, French or Indian.

So America has always deified itself, inadvertently, innocently, and unconsciously. So many examples exist, but veneration of the flag has always been the most provocative. That veneration leads self-proclaimed patriots burn the flag--either in celebration of the purity of the rights granted in the Constitution, or ritually, once a flag had become stained and tattered. The debate isn't as much about the sacredness of the flag as to the appropriate ritual with which it should be honored.

But at the end of the day, the flag is nothing more than cloth, a symbol. What it represents--liberty or enslavement, opportunity or oppression--is a moving target. In American history we find all of them. As a symbol, the flag is only a reflection of the civic good we embody in our policies and actions. This weekend, I've heard a lot of discussion about how people plan to celebrate flag day. But thinking about the celebration of the flag (or even its ritual meaning) misses the larger point: it's not the symbol we should be considering, it's the policies of the country that flag represents. After all, a symbol can only reflect the thing for which it stands.

posted by Jeff | 1:31 PM |
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