A personal reflection on symbols, their purpose and meaning, particularly pertaining to the continuing controversy concerning the American flag…
To stand or kneel at the sight of our national flag
(and at the sound of our national anthem),
I think, is a matter of individual conviction and choice.
For, at the least, the flag, as a sign, a symbol, represents
(and I believe that the flag cannot be said never to signify) freedom of choice.
Generally, any sign or symbol points beyond itself to a reality that,
at times, is difficult to articulate, hard to put into words;
words, that without error
(that is, without my inadvertent misrepresentation as speaker/writer
or your equally unintended misinterpretation as hearer/reader)
communicate a thought or an idea
(which, as materially invisible, inherently is problematical to convey)
with undiminished, unblemished clarity;
so that I can say, “This is precisely what I mean”,
and you, whether or not you agree, can say, “I know precisely what you mean.”
If or as all this were not as challenging as it is,
what happens when (not if, for, I think, it happens oft enough)
the sign or symbol, which, in time and space, is a literal matter (or thing) of fact,
becomes more important than the reality it represents?
To put this another way:
What happens when the sign or symbol, the means, in this case, the flag –
which, as a reminder of an ideal, points to the end, in this case, the freedom of choice –
becomes significant in and of itself?
If, when this happens, the flag no longer is (no longer can be) an aide-mémoire,
but rather, in the language of Abraham Heschel, becomes “an aid to amnesia.”(1)
(This, I think, always is the risk, the danger we humans encounter. For we, who live in the material world of space and time, always are limited by our physical sensory perceptions, which helps explain our reliance on symbols. We do not dwell in the immaterial realm of the ideas or the invisible sphere of the realities to which our signs and symbols point. Thus, I think, it is easy, perhaps, damnably necessary that we, from time to time, become amnesiacs. We forget the connection between our symbols and their representative realities. When we remember that not only is this possible, but rather that it happens, then we can correct ourselves. And when don’t remember this, we don’t, we can’t correct ourselves.)
Thus, when our symbol, in this case, our flag becomes an aid to amnesia, then we (read: those who possess and exercise power, for example, currently in the news, the National Football League) tend to legislate (defining and designating “appropriate” actions, which, ironically, as outward displays, are signs and symbols in and of themselves) how the flag is to be addressed, which means we restrict the freedom (that we have forgotten) the flag represents.
(1) From The Prologue of The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (1951), Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972); one of the 20th century’s leading theologians and philosophers.
Endnote: In a previous blog post (where I stand on sitting & kneeling, September 3, 2016), I expressed my personal position concerning my public response to the flag. My perspective and practice remain the same: “…whenever I am in a public setting, say, at a sporting or civic event, and The Star-Spangled Banner is played and the Stars and Stripes displayed, I stand and place my right hand over my heart. Doing this, I express, in some part, my recognition of the veneration others accord these symbols, in more part, my admiration for my father and those who have served and do serve in the military, and, in most part, my anticipation of what America can be, but is not yet.”