Symbols are powerful things. They are shorthand for what we believe in, and people have died for them - and what they symbolize - throughout history. National flags reflect those identities and values, and flags can also represent other self-defined groups. Pride Month just ended, with lots of flags in evidence of that celebration!
We are now having a national discussion over what flags, signs and monuments exemplify our American ideals. One thing we can all agree on is – the Statue of Liberty! Or can we? Some of our recent immigration policies might suggest her welcoming torch is no longer a reality…
The Confederate Flag and the Nazi insignia indicate political stances that are rooted in the past. As we re-examine the history some of these symbols point to, and what they glorify, we wonder how to align our current values with this past. We are also understanding that the hostility, violence and inequality these icons represent continue to be experienced every day
Part of the discussion is, how far to go? Do we try to eradicate history and just move on? Or cleanse it? Or come up with some new, better symbols that truly represent out ideals? Can we even come to an agreement on all this? It’s a rough dialog but a necessary one. Even a statue of Lincoln has come into question because it depicts a slave on all fours, on the ground at his feet. Yes, it represents some version of history – but what would Lincoln say? Some statues like this are being re-envisioned – for instance, by removing the cowering/enslaved/downtrodden peoples in some of these monuments.
Some political groups make a statement by destroying the icons and meaningful symbols of those they are subjugating. I think of the Taliban in Afghanistan blowing up the world’s two largest standing Buddhas, carved into the side of a sandstone mountain. ISIS robbed the Iraqi museums of much that was of historical and cultural significance. (Check out the movie “The Monuments Men” to see another version of this familiar story.) Even moving an icon can cause controversy – like several “Ten Commandments” statues on public grounds, and the “Lady of the Rockies” - built in the likeness of Mary and 90’ tall, she towers over Butte, Montana.
Now, even mask-wearing (!!!) has become a political statement in these divisive times. These signs and signals are meant to simultaneously brand us into a “tribe” while defining an unwelcome “other” at the same time.
Yet as polarizing as these signals can be, they can be a starting point for conversation. And when viewed as a whole spectrum, these signs DO represent the diversity we exemplify in the United States. After all, we are the only country made up of mainly of immigrants! All these different viewpoints not only represent our diversity, but our liberty and freedom of speech - so valued and admired in the world. And that IS something to celebrate!