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 Sententious Thinking About Historic Symbols

By Roy D. Follendore III

Copyright (c) 2003 By RDFollendoreIII

 

January 14, 2003

 

By definition one may be considered to be "sententious" when you are inclined to excessively moralize things and given to pithy aphorisms.  I don't have a problem with that. That is pretty much intelligent essays have always been about.  But being moral is not necessarily the same thing as having a moral. I freely admit that I tend toward sententious ideas that I write about and I think that in writing a degree of excess is far superior to a vacuum.  There is nothing wrong with having moral basis in your writing.  Having a moral to an essay is important.  The moral is pretty much what allows ideas to be uncovered and allows it to be told.  But to be able to effectively relate the moral of ideas you need to have symbols, even though some symbols may not be liked very much. An essay writer is a kind of storyteller and to have a hero or a storyteller needs villains. The Devil is the ultimate villain and the extreme contrast in any story is of course the classic relationship between God and the Devil. In a symbolic way, these two deities are the physical embodiment of emotional love and hate. Within every morality play there is a symbolic theme that uses the extremes of representation allowing us to easily love one symbol and hate another.  It is a tool that we see politicians and news media use every day so that we can be pulled into their view of loving one symbol and hating another without our need to think for ourselves.       

  

I suppose there are symbols I deliberately choose to hate if I really wanted to dwell on morally narrow aspects of history.  Long ago, parts of my family lead the Revolutionary war.  During the Revolutionary war the British slaughtered Americans in Battle, raped our women, killed our children and burned or took over their homes. My wife is part Native American.  The U.S. Army under the American flag drove her ancestors off of their land, and killed thousands on the trail of tears. Then America slaughtered Native American women and children at Wounded Knee. They pinned her people in prisons and what were essentially concentration camps and then starved and froze them.  I probably have every right to be sensitive about flying the British flag on American soil.  But when you come to think of it, my wife probably has even more right to be sensitive about the American flag than I do about the British flag. 

 

Perhaps the surprising thing should be that from the strictly moral view should probably be that neither my wife nor I harbor hate or animosity towards these symbols.  To the contrary, we both choose embrace them for their positive contributions rather than the negative. For us the reason is as simple as the fact that life is about acceptance, forgiveness of the past in contemplation of striving to make a better future for all. The wholeness of time changes all of mankind’s perceptions about the underlying morals related to historic events, though it can never change the actual historic existence and consequence of events.  But some people do seem to want to try to hide, eliminate and rearrange history for their own purposes and ends rather than accepting it for what it was.  It does not seem to make any difference that none of us were there during the Revolutionary war or during the trail of tears.  We also were not there during the Civil War.  We may either accept the historical motives for what the people who lived then said they were or create historical fiction.  We can make believe that we understand what happened to people in historical circumstance but it is not the same as being there.   The fact is that that there are people who dig up dead ideas in order to deliberately create their own version of history.  We live in a time of revisionist history makers who place today's values on yesterday’s situations.

 

When Americans fought each other on Matthews Hill at the First Battle of Manassas they were fighting for something more than their flag.  Most Confederate soldiers in the Civil War fought because they felt they had to.  These common men believed in states rights and less centralized government.  Most Rebels could not afford shoes to put on their bloody feet, must less the money to buy, feed or clothe slaves.  By the end of the civil war there were good reasons why the two sides respected each other.  Soldiers eventually learn to respect each other on the battlefield.  This is the reason why in the Civil War enemy battle flags were so important to capture and the reason why reasonable terms were given at Appomattox, Virginia. 

 

A flag does not represent any single idea, and it does not really represent good and evil like we are brought up to believe.  A simply represents the bravery of a culture to exist over a particular period of time.  The flag of the 13 colonies is an artifact representing the American history of the period.  Though it didn't last long as a symbol, it was flown during some of the most courageous moments of our country. That flag was also flown as the colonies displaced Native Americans from their land. The stars and bars of the Confederate battle flag flew as symbol of only three short years.  The American flag flew many more decades over far more generations of slaves.  It should be clearly understood that the President of the United States Government did not actually free the slaves until well into the Civil War, and then only as punishment to the states that succeeded from the Union. The post Civil War history of what happened to the slaves once the United States "freed" under our American flag hasn't exactly been very nice either.  

 

With all due respect and sympathy to those who are "sensitive" to such symbols and to loyal Americans who love our flag, no symbol is immune to being abused.  When the symbols of our United States were taken into the slaughters of My Lai, or for that matter during the indiscriminate firebombing of millions in the cities of Dresden and Tokyo, and particularly during the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we were not exactly representing the best of what our great country is about. Our American flag became synonymous with Americas possession and indiscriminant use of weapons of mass destruction. The moral of this point is not in the condemnation of our shared history but the simple fact that the shining moment of our flag as a symbol is as a constructive, not destructive presence.  Americans prevail through our adversity and our faults. 

 

For exactly the same reasons, when some enemy or protestor of the United States policy burns an American flag for the news media, their act does nothing to tarnish the sacrifice of the brave who have fought under that flag. Of course our flag deserves respect but in the end it is what it is.  Our flag is the symbol of that indestructible engine that represents the inalienable right of free speech and in a way even enemies honor the symbol of what it is through its symbolic destruction. 

 

When you truly consider the issue of our flag as a national symbol, perhaps that first line of our pledge of allegiance has got it wrong.  It is not the flag to which we should pledge.  Our flag is only a mark made of cloth. It represents our national identity, our indestructible common belief in our Constitution, and freedom provided through our State and Federal government by the Constitution.   That recognition that we are willing to fight for those ideals we believe in our hearts to be right and just, is that which we should pledge our loyalty. This pledge is not only about ideals but also the recognition that our American policies will be flawed and we expect them to be because we do not propose that our leaders nor our citizens to perfect Gods.  The pledge we make should be to our unwavering faith that we Americans can and will correct our mistakes and through our living symbols never forget those events in our common history that made us whole.

 

The truth is that the America people have always fought and died in every conceivable way over different perspectives of trying to do the right thing.  Our flag means that there are no shortcuts to the struggle for freedom.  Had our ancestors lost the Revolutionary War to England, we might have eliminated slavery much earlier without the need for the Civil War.  In hindsight our American Civil War was an inevitable and necessary part of that struggle.  The civil war was not fought over the issue of slavery as much as the best representation of freedom.  The representation of Confederate flags that are flown over State Capitals and over battlefields in this country as a representation of our history are symbols of the inevitability of truth. 

 

The sententious individuals and politicians who choose to make a "moral" point of attacking and erasing historic national symbols from public view are through their actions choosing to raise symbolic meanings from the grave. They should be careful for it is they who are attempting to breathe life back into such symbols and make them something different than what they have become for most Americans. 

 

In terms of the representation of what this country has been through, and particularly with respect to the issue of slavery, the Confederate flag is best stated as a monument to the bravery that went into a dying by both sides over a flawed and failed ideal. At the same time, is a symbol representing the historic lesson of the period when our nation reestablished unity and overcame diversity.  The stars and bars of the Confederacy were made red by the blood of the North as well as the South.  If Americans are not allowed to fly and prominently display this symbol then we are being asked not to remember that lesson for all that it really was.  These are old wounds but they are still there.  The rational concern that politicians and the process of distant politics can not be trusted to represent the rational and traditional needs of the local citizen represents the class of moral issues which initiated the civil war for our ancestors.

 

My sententious thought within this essay is this.  If politically correct revisionists are allowed to rewrite history then our future citizen will only be able to see the lessons of our past in terms of black and white.   

 

 

 

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Copyright (c) 2001-2007 RDFollendoreIII All Rights Reserved