Symbols

I’ve been thinking about this whole flag/anthem thing. And the Colin Kaepernick thing. And I’ve talked to a few people both young-ish and old-ish about it. And I have some thoughts about where the communication breakdown is happening. Only read on if you’re willing to hear me out. To the bitter end.

Symbols mean different things to different people. Let’s take, for example, somethinguncontroversial, like the Confederate Flag. I am willing to accept that there are people in this world who legitimately see it as a symbol of southern pride. But there are also people, called white supremacists, who see it as a symbol of white superiority, and a symbol of their perceived lost status as masters of this land. And also other people who see it as a symbol of hundreds of years of enslavement, second class citizenship, and racism. And all of them are right, to some extent.

So here’s the heart of the matter. Symbols. They don’t actually represent anything. The only meaning a symbol can ever have is that which we, as humans, imbue them with. The letters on this post don’t mean anything. A ‘g’ doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a ‘g’. But string it together with some other symbols, you can create another symbol, ‘goat,’ that also doesn’t mean anything except that we have all agreed that it represents the idea of a four-legged farm animal that likes to headbutt things. But ‘goat,’ the word, the symbol, means nothing outside of our human experience.

I spent some time talking to people of my parents’ generation and people of my generation about this whole Kaepernick thing. I had made some snarky comments on F-Book about not standing for the pledge, and got an incredible amount of positive feedback from my age-peers. And a lot of very negative, angry feedback from people a generation up from us. I talked it out with my dad. And I think I’ve got a handle on it.

Here’s the deal, people of my age-group: to many in my parents’ generation, the pledge/anthem represent the pure motives of their ancestors. The people who fought and died for values and beliefs that they believe are the glue that holds America together. To them it’s a symbol of unity against all odds, triumph over evil and tyranny and oppression and all that. I would add that there are certainly people my age who also believe this, as well. To them, that is what the flag represents. And get this: they are not wrong. To them, that’s what it symbolizes. To them, they can still have respect for the flag and put their hands over their hearts even if they don’t approve of all of the things their nation does. Even if they are actively working to correct those things.

My generation does not understand this. Or don’t relate to it, anyway. And I will argue that they actually can’t relate to it. And it isn’t just people of my generation. There are definitely people my parents’ age that feel the same way. To us, the pledge means something different. It has taken on a completely different symbolic significance. And it is actually incompatible with the other view. On some level.

It goes like this. I grew up in a world that has never been at peace. I have never known peacetime. And every conflict in the world from the moment I was born in 1980, until now, my country has had a hand in, on some level at least. We have toppled democratically elected governments in South America because dictatorships are easier to manipulate. We have invaded nations to ensure the integrity of the oil industry. We have callously thrown away the lives of thousands of US soldiers in the pursuit of economic hegemony. We have murdered through drone strikes and bombings hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women, and children abroad. We have indirectly supported the murder of hundreds of thousands of other innocent people. We have created an atmosphere in the Middle East which has bred extremism and terrorism. We have not managed to close Guantanamo Bay! We have allowed our own callous dependence on oil and fossil fuels to continue to accelerate the most massive global climate shift in human history and are continuing to do nothing about it. And to people like Colin Kapernick, it represents police brutality and ongoing mistrust of African American people.

So to us, the flag and the pledge and the anthem also symbolize that. We support the troops. We support the worker. We support our families. We respect the hard work and determination of our ancestors. But we cannot divorce that from the things that people in power have also done. We cannot ignore that. So the symbol means something different to us. Something a little darker, less good. It does not mean that we are less patriotic. Most of us still love our country and want to do everything in our power to make it a good and just place to live for us and for our children.

To all of us, saying the pledge and singing the song feels like tacit approval of all of these things on top of all of the good things. And get this: we are ALSO not wrong.

We feel uncomfortable swearing fealty by saying the pledge because we feel that we shouldn’t have to. Our loyalty to our people should be seen through our actions and not through rote recitation of an ancient oath to an inanimate object. We feel uncomfortable singing a song written by a terrible racist (I am actually in the camp where a new national anthem is in order, say, America the Beautiful? Maybe? Or Bohemian Rhapsody?) And that is what the previous generation cannot see about us. And that is why they reacted so viscerally negatively to our comments and attitudes toward Kaepernick’s protest, and our own confessions to doing similar things.

It’s the same symbol. It means many things to many people. And none of them are wrong. But we do have to find some way to get along.