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Flag Power: Sign and Symbol (1 of 2)

June 24, 2015

Because a flag can be so important in the psychopathology of American democracy, powerfully illustrated by the recent racist murders in Charleston SC and the controversy over the Confederate battle flag at the state capiol building, let’s try to quickly explore that phenomenon, as an episode in our narrative.

The point is to clarify how a flag can be so powerful, exert such a powerful influence on us, and how that helps us understand our national psychopathology.

A flag is that powerful when, for us, it is a symbol, something within us, not just a sign for something that is more or less related to us. Here’s what I mean by that:

When I was a kid, shortly after the war (i.e. in the late ‘40s), I learned a song that had been popular with my grandparents’ generation: “O we’ll rally ‘round the flag, boys, rally one time more, shouting the battle cry of freeee-dom!…” (that’s what I still remember). As I sang, I saw my flag (the Stars and Stripes); and that image, with the call to action, evoked a vague, mixed scene of the battlefield in WWII, WWI, the Spanish-American War, and the Civil War, and vague feelings of heroic, self-sacrificial, brotherly, noble and honorable—and probably victorious—desperate bravery, in defense of all that was/is valuable in my American national identity (including, indeed, American exceptionalism). I imagined myself volunteering to engage in such an act. I felt a warm glow of supreme meaningfulness and purpose, substance, value, and valuable identity, both individual and group.  (Give me a break, I was just a kid.)

I can remember all of that really well, because really I’m not so very different from that now. More broadly experienced, studied, reasonably skeptical, and self-reflective. Same old amygdala, and same old social conditioning.

The controversial flag at the SC capitol building (and remembering that SC was the first Confederate state, having bombarded the United States military post on an island in Charleston harbor), the flag with which, as his photos show, Dylann Roof expressed the good in his social (for him racial) identity, was the “battle flag” of the Confederate military, the symbol around which Confederate soldiers rallied in battle. It symbolized everything of value in the national identity for which they risked their lives.

What distinguished their national identity from that of the nation from which they were seceding was the institution of slavery, the reduction of a person from human to thing to be owned and used by a human. The value, seemingly worth dying for, was the superiority, in the eyes of man and God, of white people, as justification for brutal subjection of black people.

That battle flag was fully symbolic of themselves. It was not just a sign of their political identification (potentially interchangeable with other signs); it was an outer/internal, transcending thing that “participated in” the meaning(fulness) that it held for them. Their physical experience of it was intensely charged with ideational, imaginative, emotional, content, both conscious and unconscious.

Another illustration:

Imagine that during the week before she received the order for a flag for a new nation, Betsy Ross stitched a very nice wall-hanging of a bouquet of flowers, and a design on cloth to be hung outside, pointing citizens the way to the nearest outhouse.  (She might have put the bouquet on the outhouse sign, and then hung that flag-sign on the outhouse, or hung the bouquet art on the wall of the outhouse, and put flowers in a vase on the seat next to the hole.  But I digress.)

Likely, as she stitched the bouquet and the public sign cloths, she didn’t give them a lot of thought, or emotion.  She was a conscientious craftswoman, but she didn’t invest her identity, conscious and unconscious.

But then she and her apprentices sat together working on a very large piece of cloth with a design that was a sign of the existence of a new nation, and would come to be a symbol of that new nation, established by her fellow citizens en mass, as part of their taking on, and deeply investing themselves in,  a new sense of political and social identity.  The sign was underway toward becoming a symbol.

(to be continued)

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