Skip to content

Flag Power: Sign and Symbol (2 of 2)

July 5, 2015

[Page 1]

Yesterday was Independence Day, so chances are, if you went to a public fireworks show you saw the American flag displayed with explosives, much like the one seen from dthe deck of the British warship in Baltimore harbor on that night in 1812 when Francis Scott Key wrote his poem, “Defence of Fort M’Henry.”

Yes, but that just isn’t the same, it doesn’t have that symbolic power for us that it had later, as “The Star-Spangled Banner.” But in 1812 that flag (15 stars and stripes) was a symbol for Key. British sailors watching would have seen it as a sign, of the enemy soldiers and nation, with some emotive power for them, but not much unconscious power of personal identification and fate. Thus they wouldn’t have been willing to die for it, or felt the power of it’s still waving, as if they themselves were still waving up there, in their hearts. A Chinese reporter on board would have seen it as a sign of the nation he was visiting, flying among something like fireworks. *

Betsy Ross has become a mythic figure, since the 1870s and 1909 (more about mythology on a later page of my narration) for stitching the first iteration of that flag. She is important in our Origin Myth for two reasons: (1) she provides a female character—which I’m guessing became important after 1865, and (2) she hand-made (yes, that’s another novel) something that we cannot do without, a symbol of our personhood as a People.

The latter is especially important at this moment in our history as we appear possibly to be abandoning a counter-symbol of identity, that racist white Confederate identity around which the Republican Party has rallied since 1968 with Nixon’s Southern Strategy (to corner the vote of “Negrophobe whites,” as a Nixon advisor put it), and 1980 with Reagan’s delivery of his first campaign speech as Republican candidate for President, near Philadelphia, Mississippi (rather than Pennsylvania), where three young civil rights workers had been killed for encouraging black citizens to vote.

And, wow, on my way to yoga this very morning, two local black men, late thirties, volunteered to be characters in this narrative, and here they are: they are sitting with coffee outside a shop, and as I walk past, they seem to be talking about whether the younger man should become involved in something, and the older of them says, with great seriousness, “My life—and your life—is worth a whole lot more than that!” Shades of Jim, whose plan was to escape into the North, get work, and save enough money to buy his wife out of slavery, when he saw his fugitive slave flyer, offering a reward, and said, “Look Huck, I’se rich! I’se worth $600!”

If we stop waving the Confederate battle flag, a powerful symbol will have come down; and that will be, potentially, a really BFD in the history of the psychopathology of American democracy.

7-10-15:  A brief presentation of the active meaning of that battle flag, and who is rallying ’round it, or against it.  Along with the general racist obstruction of Obama’s presidency, including calls for secession of some Southern states, surely some of us are using the Republican Party to draw and reinforce social and political battle lines.  We’re a nation dividing against ourselves.

* It has been so long since I first read the distinction, “sign” that “that stands for, but apart from, meaning, and “symbol” that “participates in the meaning” that it holds for the perceiver, that I don’t remember whom to credit, but I think it was the theologian, Paul Tillich, writing about the cross as a fully participatory symbol for Christians, but merely a sign of the presence of Christianity for someone of any other faith—and of course the same for every other faith group and its symbols. Another excellent example of the kind of power that we’re thinking about together.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: