Thursday, October 20, 2005

Symbols

From commondreams:

“Everything in the Gospel rejects what flags stand for: boundaries, hatreds, creation of enemies,” Kobasa says. “For a Catholic Christian school that holds up the crucifix as a symbol of God’s love, the flag can only be a contradiction. The Church can only function with its prophetic voice by standing outside the state.”

For the past six years, whenever he found an American flag in his classroom he removed it, he says.That never caused a problem until this semester, he adds. At a faculty meeting in August, he says, a new policy came down from the board of education at the Bridgeport diocese: The school day would begin with a prayer and a pledge of allegiance...

“I met with the principal, and she said she was aware that I had not been doing the pledge, but that now there would be a problem because it was the policy,” he recalls. “So what I offered was an arrangement by which any students who wanted to make this oath of fealty could do so with a flag that they could have available. But only for the duration of the pledge itself, and then the flag would once again be removed.”

“Ten days later, I was called down to her office, at which point she announces that this compromise, which she thought would be acceptable, is not,” he recalls. The superintendent of schools, Dr. Margaret Dames, warned that “if I refused to accept the policy, that would be taken as an indication that I no longer wished to work for that school system.”



Well, they fired him.
Symbols are powerful things. All of us have various symbols in our lives which affect us in ways we don't ever really think about. They fascinate me, personally. There is a power to symbols, and to symbolism, that is both awe-inspiring and frightening. The ancients knew this, and used talismans, crests, and other symbolic objects in ways both holy and decidedly secular. Adolph Hitler was obsessive when it came to the power of the symbolic and in the span of decades totally corrupted a symbol of spiritual power into a sigul of hatred and fear.

Today, symbols retain enormous cultural, psychological, spiritual, and emotional heft. The "golden arches," Mickey Mouse, the Apple logo, even "Juicy" tracksuits; All of them have transcended their primary designated purpose (which is to identify a product), and assumed "life" that transcends that first purpose, imbuing the symbols themselves with "meanings" that go beyond product identification. Symbols like these assume a larger life through their assimilation into the public consciousness, and they are given meaning by the people who adopt them. "Juicy" no longer simply identifies the product. It identifies the person wearing that product, and the person who purchases it seeks out and desires that identity-transference.

When a fan of Farewell Radiance (an excellent metal band worth your time and hard earned money - check out their link in my "Musica" section) buys a t-shirt with their logo emblazoned on it, they are looking to be identified with that product in the eyes of others. The act of wearing your favorite band's t-shirt creates identity for yourself and for anyone who sees you wear it.

The danger that adopting a symbol creates is that, over time, the symbol comes to mean more than what it is supposed to represent. This happens all the time. Symbols contain only the meaning that's given to them. They do not exist in-and-of-themselves as divine representations. Having "Juicy" written on your ass means nothing. But because our culture has decided that "Juicy" suits are (or were) "hott," wearing Juicy now "means" that you are either "sexy and fashionable" or "shallow and materialistic." Neither of these opinions is empirically true. Wearing Juicy does not make you either sexy, or shallow (it does, however, appear to signify a certain willingness to follow trends). It doesn't "make" you anything. Wearing Juicy (and how I regret choosing this as my example now, after typing that word umpteen times) makes you clothed.

Which brings us, finally, to the meat of my point. We as Americans have always had a quasi-religious relationship with our flag. We worship it, in a very true sense of the word. We attempt to keep people from harming it by creating punishments, we have specific ways of treating, storing, and respecting it. We swear allegiance before it.
None of these things is negative, inherently. But there is a danger inherent in the worshipping of symbols. If you're religious, you already know that the worship of false idols is a sin in the eyes of God. In fact, under the OT's Jehovah, the Catholic church's inclusion of the figure of Christ on the cross is, in fact, the worship of a graven image. Thou shalt not do that, yo.

It's also dangerous in a purely secular, political, sense. In Scott McClouds wonderful book, "The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln," McCloud has Lincoln address the modern-day American people on just this very topic.

My friends. My fellow Americans. I can't tell you what you want to hear. I don't know how to be your symbol. Even in my day, I was a little too human for the job. [referring to the Lincoln memorial] It was you who built this temple. It was you who carved this body out of marble and set it on a throne. All I gave you was an old man's leathery skin to stretch out upon the drafting table, to begin to diagram your future.
Not that it isn't flattering. Don't get me wrong. I did want you to like me. Why, in my day, it looked like I might be remembered as the worst president of all time. Now, some say I was the best? That sure is nice.

Of course, getting shot probably helped.
Shot by Booth.
Who, by the way, wasn't half the actor that his father was!

...What was I talking about? AH! Symbols, America, can be useful tools. But beware of those who would have you used by them! Some of their symbols are pictures, some are familiar phrases, some mere gestures. They are all designed to steal your hearts, America, but care little for your minds.

It is your duty to assign both organs to attend them.

Otherwise, Dear friends, there may yet come a day when a red, white and blue rectangle of weather-beaten fabric hoist upon a metal pole may be raised in importance high above the freedoms it once so humbly represented.

Our flag stands for a lot of things, but in and of itself, our flag stands for nothing. We endow it with our own beliefs; and what it represents depends entirely upon what we project upon it. Here, a man has lost his job because keeping a secular symbol permanently up in the classroom is apparently more important than his educational services, or the church's own teachings on the worship of false idols and graven images. Perhaps this guy was just a lousy teacher, and the school was looking for a good excuse to can him. But if that is the case, this hardly qualifies as a "good excuse."
One of the freedoms our flag humbly represents is freedom of religion, in practice and in personal belief. Kabosa's belief that God frowns upon the display of national symbols was set aside so that the symbol of those beliefs could remain.


2 Comments:

At 8:26 AM, Blogger Scott Roche said...

Awesome post, tragic reason for it to be necessary.

 
At 11:58 AM, Blogger codemorse said...

Gracias, sir.

 

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