Symbolism can be both a uniting and dividing phenomenon.
Among the many facets of human society, symbols play an important role in our daily lives. Organizations have logos, websites have buttons with images on them, streets have signs of various shapes and colors. We have more meaningful symbols too — crosses, Stars of David, the date 9/11, the year 1776, and the flags of nations. Humans also have movements, events, and campaigns which symbolize the ideas and values they seek to promote.
Some symbols are obvious in their meaning. A red octagon means to stop. The minus sign on a web browser means minimizing the window. But things get complex pretty quickly. What does the feminist movement symbolize — abortion rights, equality of the sexes, the alleged gender pay gap, intersectionality? What does the rainbow flag represent — legally recognized same-sex marriage, all types of diversity, sexual license, transgender rights? What does a cross represent – the bible, Jesus’ death, Christians, Christianity, the Westboro Baptist Church, Lutheranism, Eastern Orthodoxy? It is clear that symbols mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people.
This brings us to this week’s discussion of the American flag and the National Anthem. The flag and our anthem could represent a number of things including our soldiers and veterans, a repressive federal government, American values, the American people, a country full of injustices, or our president. This is a large part of why there is so much debate regarding NFL players kneeling or remaining in the locker room for the National Anthem.
Donald Trump seems to believe that our flag represents the American people and the great things about our country, not its flaws (like Obamacare). To many NFL players, the anthem and flag apparently symbolize our countries flaws, like racism and alleged intuitional injustices. Conservatives tend to say that our flag symbolizes our brave troops. This particular interpretation becomes problematic when vocal veterans declare their support for the NFL anthem kneeling. Some Libertarians say that our flag and anthem represent an authoritarian federal government that wants to control almost every aspect of our lives and fight pointless and arguably immoral wars overseas. On the left, there are people who argue our flag symbolizes past injustices like the Trail of Tears, slavery, or a lack suffrage for women.
Regardless of our viewpoint, there is a lot of legitimacy to each of these different objects of symbolism. If we want to have healthy communication with our political opponents, we need to understand where the other side is coming from. We need to understand others’ perspectives and areas of focus if we want to have any hope of persuading them to agree with us. Furthermore, it is nearly impossible to say what the flag truly stands for. Verily, the flag could stand for anything that the US has ever done.
“At the end of the day, the people of France and the people of Ecuador generally want personal freedom, safety, and higher levels of wealth for their families.”
The United States is a great place and the American people have done great things, but this is not to say that there is no danger in national symbols. National symbols seek to form a sense of nationalism and commitment to the nation which rarely is seen as separate from the government. Throughout history, rulers have used the concept of national pride to unite citizens behind their goals. In the most obvious example, Adolf Hitler procured nationalism and weaponized it so that he would have support for his terrible plans. In other words, national sentiment is a tool used by the state to achieve its goals, which are sometimes awful.
Nationalism is all about group identity. It is about shaping a group to have power to advance common interests. Other popular sources of group identity can be race, tribe, and religion. These sources of identity can become ugly when they turn into political collectivism — “emphasis on collective rather than individual action or identity.” This in turn demands the government organize society to seek “common” and “greater goods.” How do they do this? By implementing another definition of collectivism: “a political or economic theory advocating collective control especially over production and distribution.” Creating a sense of national identity to stir up collective desires is a perfect excuse for the state to take power over increasing aspects of human life and society. Out go property rights and freedom, and in come government control and the “common good” — whatever that is supposed to mean.
Is this what Donald Trump is trying to do? Probably not. But should we still be weary of nationalism? Absolutely. Nationalism is particularly strange because it is based on often artificial boundaries. Furthermore, the general desires of one nation of citizens are usually pretty similar to the desires of citizens of other nations. At the end of the day, the people of France and the people of Ecuador generally want personal freedom, safety, and higher levels of wealth for their families. Additionally, nationalism and other forms of group identity are about having pride for things you had nothing to do with, simply because the people who did those things were from your group. The converse of this is when people are blamed because someone else in their group did something wrong. This is often the case with racism.
One conclusion we can make is that collectivism is a central tenet of fascism. And unlike fascism, which is an elusive term that today is used to mean nearly anything and everything, collectivism has a clearer meaning. I think everyone would benefit if people used the term fascism less because it has been so distorted to the point where many are calling Ben Shapiro — a devout Jew — a fascist. Better terms are collectivism, authoritarianism, totalitarianism, and autocracy. These words hit at the heart of what we should fear — authority wielded by one person, a small group of people, or even the tyranny of the majority. These ugly forms of government can be promoted by social conservatives, as well as by cultural leftists. They are almost always wrapped up in socialism and communism. People want to increase political authority for a truly diverse set of reasons, and we should fear them all.
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