When Symbols Are More Important Than People

Respect for the flag masks an agenda to preserve the status quo and to silence those whose truths read as distractions.

Nearly two months after Election Day, I find myself wishing for a manual on how to navigate relationships with Americans whose ideologies oppose my own. November 8’s disorienting blow has left our country in polarized shards: one half celebrating like their favorite team just won the big game; the other half deep in a collective mourning I haven’t seen since 9/11.

Interacting with people who either have taken to normalizing Trump or who ardently support him has left me feeling shaky at best, and convinced that reality is now a subjective abstraction shaped by untethered words on the Internet at worst. Fortunately, a longtime conservative friend of mine is someone I can engage with knowing that it won’t end in a fight: We make it explicitly clear to one another that we appreciate the other sharing her point of view, and our conversations give me a sense of what those outside of the social media echo chamber are thinking and feeling.

A few weeks ago, my friend asked why so many Americans were upset over one of Trump’s early morning Twitter blasts, in which he proposed jailing and nullifying the citizenship of Americans who burn the flag in protest. I asked her if she disagreed with flag burning as an expression of dissent, and she said yes, because the act destroys something that is a symbol of our country.

I thought about the nature of symbols, particularly the American flag. It is omnipresent. It demands recognition at everything from sporting events to elementary school homerooms. But unlike some other familiar flags and symbols, the ideas it represents are harder to pin down. The Black Power fist, the fist housed within the Venus symbol, and the LGBT pride flag are all connected to specific movements within American culture and symbolize solidarity within communities. The Stars and Stripes, however, encompass all of these factions and so many more…at least in theory.

As a symbol of freedom, the American flag is clay in the hands of the potter, mutating to fit the definition of freedom adopted by the person waving it. To one American, the flag may represent the promise of freedom and a new life after living under tyranny in another nation. To another, it may represent the freedom to tell those who are different to get out, and thereby stand for a time when America was not as diverse. To a protester who resents America’s soon-to-be leader, the means by which he was elected, and the things he stands for, burning the flag may symbolize, as George Orwell once put it, freedom “to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

What concerns me is that those who are quick to dismiss and demonize anti-Trump protesters as “special snowflakes” who need to “stop getting offended about everything” are largely the same folks outraged when an athlete doesn’t stand for a piece of cloth. While discussing Colin Kaepernick on a recent episode of The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, The Blaze contributor Tomi Lahren condemned the quarterback for “taking [his] perceived oppression of black people out on our flag.”

Lahren’s phrasing in and of itself is telling. It is impossible to “take out” anger on a flag the way you would on another person, and her personification of an inanimate object elevates it to a status above the human lives Kaepernick protests for. When Lahren references “the country that you benefit from,” she frames the concept of freedom within her life as an affluent white woman, utterly neglecting that the benefit she enjoys of being presumed innocent by the police is not shared by all Americans. In this context, respect for the flag masks an agenda to preserve the status quo and to silence those whose truths read as distractions.

This is hardly the first time Americans have privileged pomp, circumstance, and symbol over human lives and experiences. Our devastation on 9/11 initially brought us closer together: holding vigils, donating, and volunteering, and, yes, proudly flying American flags. But over time, the sea of red, white, and blue outside our homes turned yellow. Every vehicle was proudly adorned with a “Support Our Troops” ribbon; every store sold masses of them. Some versions of the platitude were more combative than others: “If you won’t stand behind our troops, feel free to stand in front of them” held our feet to the fire, equating support of our service men and women to acceptance of an economically draining and morally questionable military campaign. The yellow ribbon transformed into a tool to split us into good patriots and un-American dissenters.

Naming the Iraq military campaign “The War on Terror,” led to similarly divisive results. On the morning after ABC incessantly interrupted the 2003 Academy Awards to show footage of fighting abroad, everyone in my high school English class was buzzing about the war. Our teacher perched herself on the edge of a desk, took a deep breath, and said, “You can’t wage a ‘War on Terror.’ There is no such thing. Terror is an idea.” Her words have stuck with me to this day.

The act of linking a tangible, highly consequential event (the war) with a muddled abstraction (terror) invites chaos and misunderstanding. When post-9/11 Americans failed to distinguish between radicalized terrorist organizations and peaceful, law-abiding Muslims, hate crimes against Muslims rose to an unprecedented high. So long as the American understanding of “terror” remains hazy, some citizens will believe that all Muslims are terrorists (or inversely that all terrorists are Muslim), while also believing that self-identified Christian men who commit murder are merely lone wolves misrepresenting their religion.

Yellow ribbons don’t address the servicemembers who struggle with PTSD and other mental disorders, the banks who illegally foreclosed on military homes, or our nationwide homeless veteran problem. The practice of demanding compulsory allegiance to a symbol over real action and impact, as American University of Beirut professor Steven Salaita writes, “is trite and tiresome, but that’s not its primary danger. A nation that continuously publicizes appeals to ‘support our troops’ is explicitly asking its citizens not to think. It is the ideal slogan for suppressing the practice of democracy, presented to us in the guise of democratic preservation.”

When I look at the American flag today, I feel much differently about what we’re told it stands for than I did before November 9, 2016. “Freedom” is a strangely blanketed thing to believe in when the freedom to control my own body and to get the medicine I need may very well be in jeopardy. I can’t say I feel free in a country where a woman must cancel her press conference after too many threats so that her alleged rapist can sit comfortably in the White House.

What do we make of the flag when its values seem like a pipe dream, a myth, to large swaths of our citizens?

Chelsea Cristene is a communications associate and English professor based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, and MamaMia, and runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen. Find her on Twitter.

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