Remembrance & Amnesia

A personal reflection on symbols, their purpose and meaning, particularly pertaining to the continuing controversy concerning the American flag…

American flag against blue sky

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.”

2 thoughts on “Remembrance & Amnesia

  1. Paul,

    I endorse your thoughts and your words. In my view, demanding certain behaviors in response to the SYMBOLS of ideals while paying little heed to the ideals themselves or, in some cases, boldly trampling the ideals represented by the symbols, is to impose idol worship. Any authority’s mandate regarding how the flag or the national anthem must be reverenced or respected is based on complete misunderstanding of what those symbols are intended to represent, as you point out, freedom of choice in such matters. The flag and the anthem are meaningful ONLY in their relationship to the ideals they represent; absent acknowledgment, respect for, and work for preservation of the ideals, the symbols become empty objects of worship, and worship of such empty symbols is, I believe, a dangerous path for any civilization to embark upon.

    To demand a certain posture while the flag is flown and the anthem is played is to mandate an empty show of patriotism and not only does not honor, but flies in the face of, the ideal of freedom on which the nation is supposedly grounded. This is the equivalent of demanding that wedding rings must be protected from harm, must be stored in a particular, secure manner when not being worn, while taking the laws against spousal murder, abuse, or injury off the books. It is the equivalent of revering the Bible as physical object, as some of my friends in school used to do, by decreeing that no other object may be set on top of it, but then ignoring the lessons and the faith taught by the content of the same book. In my view, this is the elevation of empty form over substance in the most egregious, cynical way.

    I read something last week that I thought was a beautiful commentary on the current controversy over kneeling vs. standing. I wish I could attribute the person who first thought and wrote it, but I don’t know who that was. The statement was that it is not patriotic to stand for the flag or the national anthem. It is patriotic to work toward a country that makes everyone WANT to stand for the flag and the anthem. I agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment. I think it is a wonderful definition of what it means to be a patriot.

    Thanks for your thoughts, Paul.



    Liked by 1 person

  2. “The statement was that it is not patriotic to stand for the flag or the national anthem. It is patriotic to work toward a country that makes everyone WANT to stand for the flag and the anthem.”

    Amen. Karen, thank you for sharing this powerful, poignant and, for me, true word.

    One of the aspects of this ongoing public debate (surely, only the current resurrection of an issue that has been with us for generations, that is, in response to the query: What is patriotism? What does it look like?) is our (by “our”, I mean America in our corporal or communal personality) seeming inability (and, if able, then unwillingness) to acknowledge and accept (whether agreeing or not) another, even wholly alternate point of view. Moreover, I dread the politicization of the issue by which one side or the other screams loudest in voicing its position, and then denigrates the perspective of “the other” so to gain control of the debate and shape the public narrative to its liking. This is more than a matter of lacking civility (though, yes, for me, much of the commentary in the public square lacks the essential grace of self-and-mutual-respect), but also an issue of a paucity of honesty. All of this ails my soul…

    Nevertheless, in my discontent regarding the temper of the debate, I, in true biblical fashion, gird up my loins in my commitment to do and to be a gracious listener and speaker; one who listens to all and speaks with all with charity and clarity.

    Love, Paul


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