Tuesday, February 01, 2005

The Symbol Life

We live in a country of endless possibilities, exciting opportunities and vast resources. Yet we are a curious union, forever struggling with ambiguity, hypocrisy and paradox. Consider our very birth: America is a nation founded by slave owners who wanted to be free. Irony! Today we have grown into a nation of 300 million people, and if we have learned nothing else, it's that trying to please all of the people all of the time isn't getting easier with each passing year. As the population continues to escalate, so do the chances of offending each other.

One of the many incongruities of the U.S. is that we claim to embrace freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and other basic civil liberties. But you can't really guarantee these things, because as soon as you do, you unleash a variety of loopholes and exceptions (after all, according to popular wisdom, one must never yell "Fire!" in a crowded movie theater, unless Adam Sandler is starring in it). Anybody naive enough to believe that we have free reign to express ourselves obviously has never encountered the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), a regulatory watchdog group that routinely moderates and censors words and images that have been deemed too "potent" for the public airwaves.

Symbols have long been one of the hot buttons that routinely strike fear and loathing into the hearts of the populace. In early January, the owner of a shop in downtown Howell, Michigan, caused an uproar in early January when he placed a number of items he intended to put up for auction in his store window. Among these items: a robe belonging to a former member of the Ku Klux Klan. For many people, this garb is a symbol of racial intolerance. Moreover, the auction's timing hit a nerve: the date of the auction was to be Martin Luther King's birthday. And yet, who could deny the store owner's right to sell and display the costume, rich as it is in historical significance? In the end, the store owner agreed to remove the offending clothing.

Another recent example of "freedom of expression" clashing with other idealism came last summer, when the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court fought to keep a two-and-a-half ton monument bearing the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of the Alabama State Judicial Building. The controversy began to heat up when the display angered those who felt the statue would be more appropriately displayed in a church than in a political venue. Fittingly, a vote removed the monument from the Capitol, and it was hauled over to the lawn of First Presbyterian Church in Lake Placid, Florida.

Then, barely a couple of weeks ago, yet another symbol—a Nazi swastika, arguably the most powerful and hated symbol of the 20th Century and beyond—became the source of another outcry, only this time, the flap was centered in Britain. In a move of stupidity unequalled in recent memory, Prince Harry (son of Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana) wore an armband with a Nazi insignia to a costume party. Photos from the party found their way onto British tabloid newspapers, causing an international furor. Harry apologized for being an insensitive dumbass.

From people who want to remove the word "God" in the pledge of allegiance to those who are infuriated by Nativity scenes during Christmas, symbols seemed doomed to create havoc for the forseeable future. Because flags are instantly recognizable as political symbols, there are numerous instances where they have been at the forefront of controversy. According to the book Farewell to Manzanar, author Jeanne Wakatsuki recalls Japanese residents of the United States—including her own father—burning the flags of their homeland following the attack on Pearl Harbor simply because it connected them to their home country.

The Confederate flag, meanwhile, has become all but synonymous with slavery for entire generations of people who never even lived through that dark period of America’s history. Years ago, at Harvard University, some people were outraged when a fellow student hung the flag in public view. Once again, a piece of decorated fabric became the source of hurt feelings and outrage. How should Harvard's overlords have reacted? Which is more important—upholding racial peace, or freedom of expression?

It's one of the hallmarks of human nature that, both as individuals and subgroups, we are designed to be offended. In a perfect world, the Harvard students who found the Confederate flag offensive should have been even more offended by any move to remove them. As Voltaire is famous for having said, “I may disagree with everything you say, but I would fight to the death to defend your right to say it.” An admirable statement, to be sure, but it doesn’t work in the real world. Or at least the United States.

Which symbols do you find disturbing? What offends you most in life?

1 comment:

dUgE k said...

Brett,

Did you know that the swastika was not always a symbol of the Nazis? It is actually an ancient Hindu symbol to ward off evil spirits. I learned that from my favorite episode of TV's Kolchak: The Night Stalker entitled "Horror In The Heights". The episode, which is considered by most fans to be the series finest hour, was penned by veteran Hammer Horror writer Jimmy Sangster. Thank you.