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Meaning Less

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The uproar over Indiana's "religious freedom" law and the atrocity in Charleston, South Carolina, hardly occupy the same realm of gravity. Yet I've been unable to resist making a connection when it comes to their aftermaths.

They are a matched set of examples of the power that symbolism carries for today's citizen, and the potential of that symbolism for mischief.

I cite them not to add another spoon to over-stirred pots of the moment, but to raise a larger question about ideas and ideals as they are embodied in public expression -- words (written and spoken) and images, especially those of flags -- Rebel, Rainbow or Republic.

San Francisco artist Gilbert Baker designed and created the Rainbow Flag in 1978. A symbol for the LGBT community, it was originally comprised of eight different colored stripes, though it now has six. - COURTESY WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
  • San Francisco artist Gilbert Baker designed and created the Rainbow Flag in 1978. A symbol for the LGBT community, it was originally comprised of eight different colored stripes, though it now has six.

In each of these current instances, language -- a verbal or visual representation of a volatile abstract idea -- got itself attached to a real, concrete event that was unwelcome, largely unanticipated and, in the latter case, incomprehensibly horrible.

In each, the media and officialdom were quick to respond. Something had to be done. Something had to be done about ... Discrimination against gay people? Racial inequality? Availability of guns to any homicidal crackpot who has a few bucks?

Not so much. First and foremost, something had to be done about perception.

What better occasion than Independence Day, when we are exhorted to rally as one people around a flag, which is routinely waved by groups that hate other groups, to review the ways this maneuver was carried out.

In Indiana, a moral issue was barely a speed bump until it morphed into a financial fiasco and PR problem. If the state was not going to be seen by the outside world as a bigoted backwater unworthy of corporate talent and tourist dollars, then it could not be waving about an anti-gay statute.

In Charleston, mass murder put a flag on trial. If racism in the Deep South had metastasized in the slaughter of nine innocent people in a church, then it was time to reconsider decorating government buildings with an emblem of plantation racism.

Much ado, all this amounts to -- not about nothing, God knows; but rather, toward nothing.

George Orwell himself must be smiling somewhere over the dance Indiana's Republican leaders and the "enlightened" business establishment performed with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

This Fourth of July weekend, Old Glory will be a popular symbol in the United States. - PHOTO BY JAMI STALL
  • Photo by Jami Stall
  • This Fourth of July weekend, Old Glory will be a popular symbol in the United States.

First, the political leadership denied that a measure that was explicitly drawn up as a backlash against same-sex marriage was meant to discriminate against anyone.

Then they explicitly refused to add gender orientation to the state's anti-discrimination law. And continued fighting same-sex marriage in court.

Then they held a gala press conference, an all-star revue of movers and shakers, to announce to the moneyed world that Hoosiers were e pluribus unum.

Then they hired an out-of-state public relations outfit, at an estimated ultimate cost of $2 million, to get to work on the state's image.

With apologies to Marshall McLuhan, Plato, Vance Packard and George Carlin, the message was about the message was about the message. The reality behind the message was reduced to a shuddering shadow of marginal interest.

You can get fired or evicted in Indiana for being gay, but you have elected officials and the Chamber of Commerce denouncing what they're letting happen to you. It is up to you to treat the abstract as concrete. After all, the guys who call the shots do, and so do their recording secretaries in the mass media.

In South Carolina, as elsewhere in the South and as far and wide as Wal-Mart itself, a symbol likewise has come under fire - not within days, as with RFRA, but more than a half century after it went aloft in official defiance of the Civil Rights movement.

All arguments and interpretations aside, the Stars and Bars is unquestionably a symbol so potent as to permeate the membrane separating abstract from flesh. Never mind how many pickup trucks, bikinis and coffee cups it adorns; the banner packs nearly the incendiary punch of the swastika and is flown by a good many Americans out of the same sentiment toward blacks and Jews.

Many more who don't go that far cherish the Confederate flag as a memorial to insurrection and a badge of separate nationhood, even if they often as not fly Old Glory alongside it. As a marker of the polarization of America under its first black president, this symbol is as precise as it is provocative.

Which raises the question: How could responsible public servants of either party have been comfortable working under the Rebel flag until one June day in 2015?

Catastrophe gets action, or more precisely reaction, from political "leadership," and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, among others, had to do something. The something was to target a villain of visual language, leaving intact the policies that persuade the vast majority of blacks in America that the Confederate flag is not misleading or outdated at all. It means what the demagogues say.

In two red states, then, justice issues have been reduced to image problems, and re-branding is under way. Change the words, change the pictures, forget the substance. It's nothing new and certainly not exclusive to the right wing. We've always pledged allegiance to the flag, never to everybody for whom it stands.

This Fourth of July finds us as polarized as ever. But in this age of media saturation, we have more choices of "realities" than ever. If you disagree, print this essay out and burn it. You'll feel much better.

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