I remember when there was a U.S. political movement to pass a Constitutional amendment making it illegal to burn the US flag. It didn’t happen, but there are still politicians today that have expressed equal disdain for the act. Now, without getting into my story too much, I am fond of this country, and honorably served in the armed forces, defending the nation’s interests in all sorts of eclectic “vacation” spots. (heavy sarcasm on the “vacation”.) I stand when the flag parades by and render the proper salute, and yes, it sometimes brings a tear to my eye in a way that only a combat veteran can appreciate. But I never really got too bent out of shape with flag burning. I mean, it’s just a symbol.
Hell, if you really want to offend me personally, wear the flag like it’s your fuckin’ blankie.
Yeah, not only are these shitheads treating the flag like it’s their fucking personal comfort item, rubbing their ass sweat against it like it’s a dirty towel, it absolutely is against flag protocol to wear a flag as clothing. Yeah. Fuck you. Wearing a flag and bitching about flag burning is like driving the wrong way on a one-way street to yell at someone that ran a red light. You’re both wrong.
But I digress. You see, for me the flag is a powerful symbol of this country. But at the end of the day, it is still just a symbol. It isn’t magic. There are millions of them. They exist in thousands of forms and are manufactured in thousands of places. The flag is simply colors arranged in a familiar pattern. Period. If this reminds you of something important, great. But don’t get all bent out of shape when someone makes something or buys something and then burns it. It’s their shit they’re burning, no matter what it looks like.
Do you know what else is merely a symbol? Military medals. I ought to know, I have many and I’ve given many. Your military file could give a fuck-all if you have the physical hardware, it’s the actual document with the signatures that means everything. Hell, I can buy any medal I want to right now online or in a PX/BX. (Except maybe the Congressional Medal of Honor. They tend to check ID for that one)
Yet I also remember a time when a US Presidential candidate was being disparaged for allegedly “throwing his medals back” in protest during the Vietnam War. Guess what. That, too, is only symbolic. The actual award is a document with signatures on it, in a file or nowadays scanned in a database. Throwing the metal and fabric item, in any context, doesn’t change what happened once upon a time. That candidate still did something and the award was written, signed, and filed in official files. You can throw all your medals away however you want, you are still authorized to wear them.
What it really means
So why do people burn flags? Why do they “throw their medals back?” For that matter, why do protesters burn effigies or repeat mantras? Why do they rip down statues? Why do they wear pussy hats? I’ll tell you why in one word: Psychodrama.
Like it or not, we humans are emotional beings. We are influenced, sometimes quite easily, by imagery, music, repetition, ritual, and the emotion of others. Buying an expensive pair of shoes, and then burning them, doesn’t mean a hill of beans to the shoe manufacturer. Hell, they’re happy you bought a pair of shoes. But to the individual that does the burning, it has emotional meaning. And this is the most important thing to remember. Symbology is an individual thing. It is your own psychodrama. A symbol that whips up strong emotions in one person might be blasé to the next. Hell, the next person might not even recognize it as a symbol of something. So getting mad at someone else for not emotionally caring the same as you do about a symbol is, well, stupid.
The protesters that burned the flag had about as much importance in my life as the guy that burned his Nike’s (in protest of Nike paying former NFL quarterback Colin Kapernick to endorse their product. Colin Kapernick, you may remember, killed thousands of people when he….. lol, just kidding. He knelt during a song. The horror.) Although, I do find it hilarious that in protest of the “stupid Colin Kapernick”, the moron forgot to remove his feet before he set his shoes on fire. So maybe I did have a bit of an emotional response. It was a chuckle.
At the end of the day, a symbol is just that- a symbol. Burning the flag does not render mute the Supreme Court. Burning the flag does not disband the Congress. And it doesn’t alter the US military’s proud history or the stories of the people I served with. It means something to the person doing it. And they often do it to evoke an emotional response from someone else.
If you don’t yet understand the power of some useless thing invoking an emotional reaction, the law certainly does. The entire reason the United States of America has a Trademark office is to protect the ability for particular people or companies to brand symbols in the way they want. To invoke the response they want. To prevent others from feeding off that response.
When you travel across the country and pop into a town and need gas or food or diapers, they want you to respond to their symbol. They want you to feel comfortable knowing that the symbol you are drawn to is their product. They don’t want another company to use a symbol that confuses you into buying their product. They want you to buy their version of the same product over and over and over and over again. That is power. The law recognizes the power of symbols.
The real danger
There are some symbols, however, that can be dangerous. And it isn’t because the actual symbols are any more useful or powerful or magic than any other symbol. It is because some people hold such a strong belief that they are, and then set about defending them to great consequence. If you think some people get bent so out of shape with flag burning, try peeing on a Jesus Cracker sometime.
LOL! If that last line just made your eyes pop, then I just proved my point. Symbols evoke emotion. But what are the crackers actually worth?
Think of it like this. What if I had two little bags of alike crackers. I give one bag to a priest to “turn into the body of Jesus”, and the others I eat while watching football. No problem, right? Now, what if I loaned the bag to the priest to “turn into the body of Jesus”, and then took THAT bag and ate them with my beer while watching football? Some people would find that DEEPLY offensive. Like, “no chance I’ll ever get elected to any public office at any level anywhere in the US” offensive. I killed their grandma offensive.
Let’s take this another step. What if I took the “turned into Jesus” crackers, and the regular crackers, and I accidentally mixed up the bags? I would spend the evening washing Jesus down with beer while the people in church were lining up to “accept normal crackers” into their hearts! Anarchy!
We would hope that since the claims about the crackers are so specific, it should be easy to just test the two and figure out which are which, right? Right? If you said “right”, then you don’t know what is going on. Catholics claim those crackers are the PHYSICAL body of Christ. Literally a piece of him. And here’s the thing, I can take a thin slice of human tissue, and a thin cracker, and mix them up and still figure out which is which pretty easily. The two samples will have all sorts of different properties including their texture, brittleness, solubility, acidity, their microscopic structure, and of course, their DNA. And yes, of course those Catholic wafers have been tested. They were DNA tested, because the Catholics wanted to prove their fake idea was real. And it should come as no surprise to my readers that they were severely disappointed. It was still a cracker.
It’s merely a cracker, and merely a symbol of something. It is either meaningful or meaningless entirely dependent on the emotional response of each individual. It has no independent power or extra-physically ascribed properties. It is a thing, made in a process similar to regular bread.
Jesus crackers aren’t the only completely nugatory object on which people have projected value. We now pretty universally understand that letters are merely agreed upon symbols that mean a particular sound or word. But if you believe the old Norse religions, Odin had to hang upside down by his toes for nine days and stab himself with a spear before the runes “revealed themselves to him.” Yep, the letters thought about it using their intelligence that they apparently possess, and made a decision to let this guy see them. Letters, you see, are magic symbols.
Only they also aren’t magic. I can google “runes” right now and get a whole bunch of them in my search results. They are just carved lines. Their only meaning is if the person that looks at them knows the agreed upon meaning of each of their represented sound. They not any more magic than the Coca-Cola symbol.
Crosses, crescents, stars, cups, patens, mitzvahs, thetan symbols, various statues, religious books, water, walls, fish and bindis are all objects that have been given magical status by religious adherents. And yet, you could blaspheme any one of these objects in private and nothing would happen. The only effect is if you do so in front of a believer, and they take offense or action. In private, you can talk shit to the symbol. You can throw the symbol. You can wave it in the air and curse it. And yes, you could literally pee on any one of them in private, and nothing in the world would change. Nobody would ever know. Nobody would be offended. Well, except in the case of the bindi, of course. (look it up)
Have you ever closely examined the items used in religious ceremonies? Most of them are shit. Shitty pot metal, shitty materials, shitty construction and shitty finish. Cheap knock-offs of somebody’s idea of grandeur. And yet, these crappy, tinsel painted, bendable symbols are so revered that they lock them up like the Royal Jewels.
I’ve never met a symbol that was able to hurt me. But I’ve met lots of people that would be willing to hurt me if I didn’t respect their symbols.
I’ve never met a symbol that wasn’t made by some person, and could be duplicated. Yet I’ve met people that insist they have divine or magical powers, and insist you treat the symbol as such as well.
I’ve never seen a symbol do anything but sit there like any other inanimate object. But I know people that insist you not insult them, as not to invoke the anger of the symbol.
I do not fear any ill effect of violating or blaspheming symbols. But I have a respect of violating symbols in front of certain people, lest my standing as a professional in the community be under question.
None of these symbols are worth the angst. But I’ll tell you what matters. Ideas. Actions. Voting. Those matter. The religious nut-jobs defend symbols to the death, yet flippantly disregard actual people in dire situations. Their ideas are stupid, and their ideas in the public sphere are stupid and dangerous. Their actions disadvantage others. They can’t win the war of ideas, so the war becomes a proxy-war of symbols and false piety. Shitting on people to protect a symbol is the worst kind of evil.
Fuck your symbol. Get better ideas.
The Spartan Atheist