Symbols Matter, But Not That Much
Roland Martin has an excellent column out on CNN.com today, commenting on the need to make the 28th amendment to the Constitution a requirement to wear a lapel pin of the American flag. He means this in jest, of course, and is trying to make the point that the big deal is really nothing. After all, not only does none of the presidential candidates wear one regularly, but a number of the journalists pressing the issue in debates or interviews – as well the right-wingers foaming at the mouth about Obama’s flag-less lapel – have not worn one even as they talk about it!
But it got me thinking about the larger concern that America today has rapidly become a nation more concerned with symbols, with status, and fashion, than they are with real issues.
Even as thousands lose their homes due to the mortgage crisis, these same families are rushing out every two years to get the newest and best and most gas-guzzling SUV or sports car – because of the status it suggests. Never mind that they may become homeless or trapped in a home worth less than their debt (the opposite of the American Dream).
Even as right-wingers rant and rave about traditional family values, many of their leaders are being caught in hypocritical gay scandals (Senator Craig), caught with prostitutes (Senator Vitter), or caught with a baby-out-of-wedlock just because he was driving drunk (Congressman Fosella). And yet they have the gall to wonder why their party is the dumps, their voters feel betrayed, and their brand worse less than recalled dog food?
Even as more Americans yearn for the inter-connectedness that faith provides, but question the specific dogma, we find that the very men we go to for guidance, for confessing our sins, for leadership in our spiritual well-being, these powers of faith have let us down with corruption, sexual abuse, and numerous violations of the 10 Commandments so many want to see displayed in public buildings.
Many millions of us are looking for what has been lost in the last 8 years, and arguably have been lost for a generation. We’re trying to reconcile our religious faith (or lack thereof) with the world around us. We’re looking for answers to the most burning questions of our conscience. We’re trying to find common ground, common purporse, and a connection with a world that is both growing ever closer together with technology and yet further apart by ideology and social isolation. We’re looking for a cause, a sense of self, that rises above the every day and links the best part of ourselves with the best parts of human nature.
It’s hard to explain. But one of the reasons I was drawn to Barack Obama as a leader, even back in 2004, was that I believed his values were rooted in this very important social ambition of the 21st century.
This sense of hope, this desire for change, this belief that we unite this country… these aren’t just campaign slogans or rhetorical themes for Obama. They express exactly what seems to be missing at this critical moment in history, this teachable moment for country.
I’m reminded of a line in the movie The American President.
Then the symbol of your country can’t just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the “land of the free”.
Now, I find flag burning a disgusting distraction that should never be practiced as a form of protest. But why do the same people who say the flag represent freedom want to push a law the restricts freedom in the flag’s name?
Freedom, and love of our country, has to run deeper than symbols alone. It has to come from the heart, in ways very difficult to express, but easily discerned in the actions one takes.
That true patriotism runs deeper, is more initimately emotional, goes beyond words and beyond the mundaneness of symbols, is a fact often ignored or forgotten in today’s politics. And we are worse off for it.