When Our Symbols Lose Their Meaning: The President, the NFL, and American Values

Symbols point to something outside themselves. When we lift up our symbols, ordinarily we are honoring and celebrating the things to which they point.

This is an idea that’s easy to illustrate: When we place a team trophy in the display case at the local elementary school, we aren’t honoring the trophy itself. We’re allowing the trophy to remind us of the team whose victory earned that trophy. We are honoring the team and their achievement, everything to which the trophy points.

Just to make this short discussion easier, let’s call the “thing” to which a symbol points the “message” of the symbol. Every meaningful symbol has a message.

Most people accept that symbols are important. Sometimes we need to be reminded of the messages that symbols carry. Symbols can remind us of important things about our history and about our shared principles and values. Because our symbols are shared, they can remind us who we are as a community or nation.

The American flag is a symbol of the principles that shape our democracy, like the principle that “all [people] are created equal” and the principles of freedom given by our First Amendment: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to exercise our own religion, freedom from the government establishing an official religion, freedom to peaceably assemble, and freedom to seek redress for our grievances from the government. Equality and Constitutional freedoms are core messages to which the American flag points.

Personally, the flag has always done its job as a symbol for me – it reminds me of the principles on which our great country was built. It reminds me who we strive to be.

We’ve had a lot of public debate in recent months about the meaning and importance of symbols. The debate has revealed (or re-revealed) that some people see different messages in the same symbols.

For example, in recent debates about statues of Confederate generals, portions of our fellow citizens correctly pointed out that so many of those statues were erected during the era of Jim Crow, as a means to intimidate. The statue builders were communicating their intent to maintain a societal position that, with the law’s blessing, controlled and suppressed black people. Others in the recent debate insisted that the statues’ messages were something else – reminders of some other history that they described in various ways.

When symbols don’t communicate a shared message to a community, they aren’t doing their job very well. When we discover that the message isn’t clear, it’s an opportunity and invitation for us to have public discussion, in hopes that we will reach consensus and DECIDE what message we want the symbol to carry. If we really want symbols to carry reminders of particular chapters in our shared history, we generally have to agree on the history. As evidenced by the recent debates about Confederate statues, we don’t have that kind of agreement – members of the public hold widely divergent accounts of American history.

Yes, sometimes we have disagreement about the message behind a symbol. But there’s something worse: the meaningless symbol. When people fail to acknowledge the message to which a symbol points, they sometimes leave us with an empty symbol. Rather than wrestle with the meaning as a community, they sometimes get confused and believe that the symbol itself is the real thing of value. They forget that we honor symbols as a way to honor the message to which the symbols point.

Witness the American flag. I love the flag. But I won’t say that I love the flag in the way some people love it, because some Americans have forgotten that it is a symbol. I love the MESSAGE of the flag, which no hand can destroy, more than I love the touchable fabric, the stitches, and the colors, which fade over time and grow shabby. I love the flag because I love the principles and values it symbolizes. When I honor the flag, I am not honoring the piece of cloth that a person can touch and that wind can tatter. I am honoring the values of equality and freedom that my fellow citizens have worked and fought to achieve and protect. I am honoring them and all Americans, and the values that are supposed to unite us.

Some Americans have forgotten what our flag stands for, because they have forgotten that it stands for anything at all. To them, it is an empty symbol, a vessel into which they can pour any meaning they wish.  There is a term for that.

We call it idolatry.

When people worship idols, they always pour themselves into the god they manufacture. They glorify and magnify their own assumptions about what is right and good, their own ideals, their own perceived righteousness, and, sadly, their own biases, even hatred. In America today, tragically, citizens who have forgotten the core message behind the flag (the actual principles of our Constitution) see in the flag a reminder of their own principles, sometimes including grotesquely intolerant and ignorant views. Ironically, they see in the flag messages that are contrary to all that the American Constitution stands for. And they worship it.

Once upon a time a man wrote a poem that honored the America flag, and it was later set to music by another man. In truth, it’s an awkward and difficult song to sing, but it has a certain majesty to it. Congress later adopted that song, the “Star-Spangled Banner,” as an anthem, our “national anthem.” That poet (and lawyer), Francis Scott Key, probably had the best of intentions, but he didn’t fully understand the principles of America, either, and he didn’t fully appreciate his own biases. The third verse of his poem seems to gloat at the death of escaped slaves who fought on the side of Britain in the battle at Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. Not everyone agrees how to interpret Key’s intent with those lyrics, but it is at least one reasonable interpretation that the lyrics reflect Key’s pro-slavery view, a hatred of black people, and a callousness about their suffering. And Congress chose that poem/song as our national anthem.

I confess that I never knew anything about those additional lyrics of the Star-Spangled Banner until a football player brought it to public attention. When Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the playing of the national anthem before NFL games, he informed large portions of the American public that a segment of our fellow citizens (many African Americans, in particular) are reminded by the national anthem of a tragic part of American history. Kaepernick was calling the public’s attention to something that the majority didn’t know: Much like those Jim Crow-era statue builders whose statues communicated their intent to retain power over black people, to some of our fellow citizens the official adoption of our national anthem in 1931 seemed like a similar message, reiterated every time the anthem is played or sung.

If the American flag’s message is the message of the national anthem, to many of our fellow citizens it means that we are honoring values reflected by those racist verses. To them, protesting the national anthem is therefore not a protest AGAINST equality and freedom. No, to those athletes taking a knee, protesting the national anthem is an insistence that we should ACTUALLY LIVE UP to the values of equality and freedom, instead of honoring the opposite. If we love what the flag is supposed to stand for (the values enshrined in our Constitution), we should at least agree with the point they are trying to make, even if some of us would prefer that they choose a different way to express that point.

In the past weeks, however, one public figure has disagreed with that point, and he has repeatedly demonstrated that he does not fully appreciate or share our core Constitutional values. And it’s not Colin Kaepernick.

When Donald Trump speaks of Colin Kaepernick and Colin’s fellow protestors, he has only harsh words. “When somebody disrespects our flag,” the President says he wants “that son of a bitch” to be fired. In other words, when the protestors exercise their right to free speech in a way that Trump doesn’t like, Trump is responding that they shouldn’t really have free speech. Similarly, when he calls for the firing or jailing of reporters who criticize him, he is expressing his opposition to a free press. In short, while he argues that he’s fighting for American values, he is demonstrating that he isn’t really committed to those values. Your values. My values. Our American values.

The President’s preoccupation with Kaepernick’s protest, which is a protest about issues of race, instead of focusing his Presidential attention on the current suffering of hurricane victims in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rica, once again suggests to many reasonable people that the President has, to put it mildly, a consistent blind spot on issues of race. It is just more evidence to support a conclusion that he personally harbors racial bias. To the extent he does, it is another American value (equality regardless of race) that he doesn’t share. Real patriots stand against racism, but it doesn’t appear that the President is a real patriot.

Oh, and by the way, we shouldn’t be distracted by those who are claiming that the protestors are disrespecting the military. That’s ridiculous and entirely upside down. The protestors are insisting that we not squander the American values our soldiers fight to protect. If we don’t guard those freedoms zealously, we let those soldiers’ sacrifices become meaningless. And when our soldiers make the ultimate sacrifice, let’s get this straight: They aren’t literally dying for the flag – they sacrifice for the values and principles and people symbolized by the flag. In reality, not supporting Kaepernick’s free speech is the real act of disrespect toward our soldiers, because it means we don’t genuinely care about the Constitution they have sworn to defend. They fought for nothing if, after returning home, the people at home are the very ones who surrender America’s soul.

Patriotic Americans who love and honor the flag are doing so because they love America’s principles, including free speech, free press, and equality for all. President Trump shares none of those values. While he attempts to persuade you that he is defending American values by “being tough” on football players and reporters, he is actually failing to live those values and encouraging his supporters to follow his lead.

You can’t claim to love the flag while hating the message the flag symbolizes.

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