Symbols play a powerful role in human culture. They can be vital tools in communication, but they can
also be the enemies of truth. Symbols convey ideas, but they also provoke feelings. While the truth is
complex and definite, symbols are simplistic and transient.
Basically, a symbol is an idea—one that reliably invokes another idea. It could be one of the many
familiar designs that represent various groups, causes, etc, but also every word that makes up the
language. Or a symbol can be a well-known historical event, or person, or story, or other cultural concept.
Much of the time, the meanings are straightforward and non-controversial, such as in written language, or
mathematical or musical notation, although when such symbols are strung together to create a sentence or
equation, useful information is conveyed with precision. Symbols themselves trigger associations, that is
they grab information that’s stored elsewhere, namely in your head.
If these associations vary among different people, they can be divisive. If they are predictable, the symbol
can be used to manipulate the body politic without having to resort to logic.
Sure, symbols mean things, but they don’t do things. The key to the whole issue here is the distinction
between that which is symbolic and that which is substantive. If it has a real-world existence or impact
independent of the vagaries of people’s thoughts and feelings, it’s substantive. Money is substantive.
Energy is substantive.
No matter how revered—or reviled—it is, no symbol can cast magic spells. A symbol may remind you of
something, but it doesn’t mean that the thing itself is there. Spray-painting a swastika on a wall may be
upsetting to Jewish people (understandably so; don’t get me wrong, I’m all for common courtesy), but it
doesn’t mean that real Nazis are afoot and ready to oppress them again.
Groups with different histories often apply different meanings to certain symbols, and that can be a
great source of divisiveness. For example, the display of the Confederate battle flag at certain state
capitols is denounced as racist by some, while others say that removing it would disrespect Southern
heritage. Of course, no harm is done either way. But on the question of whether official use of the flag is
inappropriate due to any connection with slavery, we see that, yes, the direct association is symbolic—it’s
the emblem of Confederate forces during the Civil War. But while the associations between the troops and
slavery are indirect, they are substantive—the troops were fighting for the Confederate government, which
was waging a war of secession for the express written purpose perpetuating slavery.
Symbols often produce knee-jerk reactions, but sometimes there is more than one symbol in play, and
so one may trump the other when it comes to inciting passions.
To a lot of Americans, “The Government” has become a symbol that represents a threat to our cherished
ideal of freedom. But the emblem of the US government is the American Flag—the Stars and Stripes, Old
Glory, the old Red, White, and Blue. And yet many of these same people are particularly passionate in their
response to incidents of flag burning—real or anticipated. It’s particularly ironic that what is considered the
proper way to dispose of a worn American flag is also to burn it, but to burn one in protest is an outrage.
Folks want to see flag-burners punished, but a substantive punishment—such as imprisonment or a fine—
for a symbolic crime is fundamentally unjust. Symbols can’t hurt you, and you can’t hurt them. To destroy a
copy of a symbol is to destroy but a representation of it; the symbol itself exists in your head and can be
reproduced countless times, so no harm is done. But if society cares that badly about a symbolic crime,
then how about a symbolic punishment? Burn the flag-burner in effigy!
And yet, a ban on flag burning has been proposed as an amendment to the US Constitution, using
language that invariably includes the word “desecration”. But as I understand it, you cannot desecrate that
which is not sacred, and most religions would reject the idea that a nationalistic symbol like a flag should be
considered sacred. But what does “sanctity” even mean? Does it just mean “having sentimental value”, or
is the object, place, or concept in question sacred because it’s infused with special supernatural significance
by Almighty God? If sanctity involved actual supernatural forces, then it too would be substantive, but we
can’t just take someone’s word or it. If sanctity is only detectible on a mystical plane, then let’s conduct the
following experiment: Convene a panel of religious leaders and tribal shamen from all different cultures that
would go around using their collective powers to determine the sanctity or lack thereof of the various sites in
question. There’d be “control” specimens, and the representative of the culture in question would be
recused, but if there’s any sanctity present, then professional mystics ought to be able to detect it.
Otherwise, the whole concept is lacking in substance and therefore bogus.
Yet some people get so upset when a symbol is “desecrated”, they seem to be confusing the symbol
and that which it symbolizes. Particularly controversial a few years ago was an art photograph entitled “Piss
Christ”, which depicted a small white crucifix aglow in an amber medium that purportedly was a glass
container of urine. This led to a significant downsizing of the National Endowment for the Arts because the
artist had received a $1000 grant. (How much of the average taxpayers money was spent on this? Not
what I’d call a substantive amount.) But it occurred to me: What if artist Andres Serrano was putting us on,
just to get a reaction, and it wasn’t really urine after all? There’s no way to tell; it’s not like Jesus came down
with an illness commonly associated with urine immersion or anything. Conversely, what if it was urine, but
he hadn’t told anyone, calling it “Christ in Amber”, or something? It may well have become a popular
Christian icon and we’d all be blissfully unaware of the underlying ick factor.
In keeping with the bathroom theme, let’s not forget the furor that erupted in the Islamic world when it
was reported that an interrogator at Guantanamo Bay dunked a copy of the Qu’ran in a toilet in an effort to
intimidate a terror suspect. So don’t sweat the torture. It’s interesting that a book should be considered a
symbol, since books consist of information, and information is substantive. If it was the sole copy that would
be one thing, but there are billions of ‘em, and yet people were killed in violent protests that took place half
a world away. If nothing else, I’d say that symbols don’t warrant violence, and yet even more violent was the
reaction to a cartoon published in Denmark depicting the prophet Mohammed (Symbolic Peace be
Symbolically upon Symbolic Him) with a bomb in his turban. And yet it wasn’t so much the implication that
Islamic culture is associated with violence that set them off, it was the mere visual depiction of the historical
figure in question that blasphemously desecrated a symbol that was sacred.
Now then, all the familiar objects and pictograms are what we might call graphical symbols. But we also
have what we might call situational symbols, that is certain events, organizations, persons, etc., that become
well known enough to take on some politically potent associations. The 9/11 attacks immediately come to
mind. Even though the substantive impact was considerable—with the deaths and physical damage, the
need for heightened security, and the invasion in Afghanistan to go after those responsible—the symbolic
implications were colossal. It triggered a wave of patriotism among Americans, and a backlash not just
against Muslims, but the President’s political opponents. Conspiracy theories abounded, as did religious
interpretations, as in divine retribution or a sign of the apocalypse. But most spectacularly was the way the
symbolism of 9/11 engineered the invasion of Iraq. Americans had been made to feel a certain way and we
expressed those feelings by taking out a regime who only connection to the attacks was in our
People often become symbols, such as famous historical figures, celebrities, and top leaders like the US
President, as well as presidential candidates. The latter can be more interesting given the powerful political
forces swirling about each of them in the midst of an election. Incidents and images from the campaign or
the candidate’s past get magnified by the media and effect not just the vote count, but the perceptions of
the political movement they came to symbolize. Just look at Barak Obama—his middle name “Hussein” is
emphasized to get people to associate him with Muslim terrorists. He’s an “elitist”, with all the terrible things
that word symbolizes. He hates America because doesn’t wear a flag lapel pin and was photographed
without his hand on his heart during the National Anthem (not the Pledge of Allegiance, an issue fraught with
symbols what with “under God” and all).
Hollywood used to symbolize the glamour of the entertainment industry, but these days the place is invoked
to symbolize a hated political movement. Al Gore has come to symbolize the global warming issue, and so
the opposition that he inevitably invites as a partisan politician gets transferred to the effort to combat the
problem. Britney Spears has come to symbolize the sorry state of popular culture. Sometimes hitherto
unknown individuals can find themselves catapulted into symbolhood: Willie Horton, Rodney King, Monica
Lewinski, Terry Schaivo, Cindy Sheehan,
What other things can you think of that became politically potent symbols? Purple fingers in Iraq, SUVs,
hanging chads…. Send in your suggestions. Symbol-spotting is helpful skill in getting a better
understanding of the political forces that shape our world.