What’s In A Symbol?

The power of symbols to crystalize a sense of commonality can be extraordinary.  The Eiffel Tower was intended to be a temporary structure, but now universally represents the spirit of France.  Queen Elizabeth is the living embodiment of Great Britain, as will be her heirs.

Symbols’ meaning have a way of evolving to meet the needs of those they represent.  The cross, originally a cruel means to a torturous death, became the adopted icon for Christianity, for example.  Tea became a symbol of rebellion once, and again more recently, in this country.

I’ve had an increasingly ambivalent sense of the symbol that is our flag for some time now.  You can fly it with national pride, wear it as a patch on your jeans, and burn it as an exercise of free speech.  Children, and sometimes adults, pledge allegience to our flag, but only incidentally to the “nation for which it stands”, something that more than a few intelligent students have found anomolous at times.

The Stars and Stripes certainly is a reminder of the sacrifices of many who fought to protect our country and to keep it one nation.  It represents the values and traits that helped set our country apart, but its image is simultaneously soiled by a history of slavery, trails of tears, Japanese internment and all too many more shameful times.  I suppose that in these ways it serves its role well, representing the best and the worst of what we, as a collective people, are and have been.

My ambivalence began, I believe, with the flag waving patriots of my youth who used the flag as an emblem of the motto, “My country, right or wrong.”  I have seen its meaning misunderstood, as when Ronald Reagan adopted as a campaign theme, Bruce Springsteen’s protest anthem, Born in the U.S.A. 

Recently, I’ve begun to recognize a mantra from some that could be characterized as, “My truth, right or wrong, and all who challenge it are traitors or worse.”  Their stance has passed beyond partisanship to one preferring that our house burn rather than allowing others in.  Their motives have become purely about winning and not about governing according to any coherent principles.

I’d like to be wrong, but I have begun to sense that displaying the flag can easily be interpreted as identifying with “them”.  It shouldn’t be that way, of course.  We should be proud of our diverse roots and of our freedom to be who we choose. The flag should belong to all of us, regardless of the meaningless things that make us each different and diverse.  Still, I never see the flag displayed any longer by people who just want to carry on with life and have us all get along.  I certainly never see it displayed by those who support “liberal” causes.

With all that in mind, I spent some time looking for a symbol that is universally recognized as a positive emblem of our country and the broader values of its people.  As it turns out, nothing could better represent that aspect of America than the Statue of Liberty.  It, like our nation, is a beacon to the world.  The words read at its dedication from the poem by Emma Lazarus speak perfectly to the spirit of those who came to this country and who made it great:

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Woody Guthrie wrote This Land is Your Land as a protest anthem in response to Irving Berlin’s God Bless America.  Ironically, Ronald Reagan used Guthrie’s lyrics as part of his re-election campaign speeches, once again not recognizing the song’s original purpose.

At least for me, the Statue of Liberty symbolizes the America that Woody sang of: the welcoming of the “masses yearning to be free.” It does nothing to fade the literal and figurative colors of our flag, but at least to me, it is more inclusive and thus vastly more welcoming of the many shades of color that make up a people drawn by the common dream of freedom.

Without criticizing or demeaning any who might not share or grasp my point (which I apologize for not sharing well), I suggest a symbol of our country that we might all rally around, however tentatively in these distrustful times.  Let the Statue of Liberty share the stage with all the images that define us as a people.

As a personal statement, I’ve created my own bumper sticker with the image you see here.  I’m working on a flag to display outside my door and a burgee for my boat (ah, sailboats are for one or many future posts).  Still, I offer the symbol of the statue to you, but leave to you the choice of expression.

I dare say that this is a moment in history in which what we choose and what we do as individuals weighs more meaningfully than most.  I’ve shared one measure of my own attempt to reclaim and redefine all of us as something resembling one people.  Find your own place, but for the sake of anything holy, find and claim shared common ground.

For me, it is Liberty Island.  It is a stone’s throw from Ellis Island, the teeming shore of the homeless, yearning to be free – a vision we need to revive.

Look into your own heritage.  Contemplate and appreciate all that it represents.  The vision of those who sacrificed to become us, lives on.





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