Gary Stein: Symbols and cymbals light up Fourth of July


As we prepare to celebrate the holiday formally called Independence Day but more commonly known as the Fourth of July, visions of fireworks, barbecue and red, white and blue come to mind.

But, taking a step back, I think a more apropos name, albeit less patriotic sounding would be to call it Symbols Day. Most holidays are filled with symbolism, but as secular, government-sanctioned holidays go, “The Fourth” beats them all.

Symbols can range from icons to symbolic acts. Flags are major symbols. They normally are meant to represent a sovereign state, or the group we call the United States, but can represent groups of people as well. The problems we run into is when the symbolism is extrapolated to things the state did, said or promoted.

We revere the cloth, stitches and pole, but what we hold dear is not the flag itself, but the symbolism behind it.

That brings us to the drama that has “exploded” since the slayings in the AME church in Charleston. The killing was done with a revolver, purchased regardless of rules in place to prevent gun ownership by people with a criminal record. The great uprising after the shooting, though, was not against shoddy stewardship and implementation of gun purchase and registration laws, but against the flag he held in his hand and heart in photos taken before the shooting.

The Confederate flag, often confused with the flag of the Confederate States, was actually a battle flag, flown proudly by Confederate soldiers as they rushed to kill fellow Americans who happened to be Union soldiers. The flag should actually be a square, as most battle flags, but it grew in length as well as a into strongbox of symbolism for all things Confederate, including racism, the plantation system and anti-government sentiment.

So, after 150 years of the Confederate flag flying over the multitudes of buildings, truck beds, garage walls and the occasional major expressway intersection (Interstates 4 and 75), the flag itself became the enemy of the state and provoked many conservative elected officials, major retailers and liberals alike  to demand its removal. I am not a fan of all that was bad that the Confederate flag symbolized and I will not lose any sleep by its disappearance from state buildings and Wal-Mart. It seems, though, we’ve lost sight of the key principle of symbolism: The symbols are just objects. We can separate them from the things they represent, but destroying the symbol does not destroy the symbolism. You can climb a pole and yank down a flag, but the culture of racism and hatred will still be there. On the flip side, you can sew an U.S. flag into a shirt or burn it in effigy in the Middle East, but this less-than-perfect nation will still stand.

As mentioned before, symbols can take the form of an action, or of activism as well. The removal of Confederate flags is, in essence a symbolic gesture. On the darker side, acts of terrorism are symbolic acts, as well.

The other day on WMNF, on Rob Lorei’s RadioActivity talk show, a caller who likened himself as a terrorist without truly understanding the meaning of the word touted that the Boston Tea Party was an act of terrorism. He was wrong and correctable on a number of fronts. First, he considered himself a terrorist because he felt the need to speak out on various issues including one involving the government. That’s not terrorism; that’s free speech. Secondly, the Boston Tea Party was not an act of terrorism. The tea party did not strike fear or terror into British, a big part of a terrorist act. The colonists were more afraid of the Tories, the reason they disguised themselves as Native Americans.

The Boston Tea Party, by ruining bales of tea via throwing them into the harbor, was economic activism. With no tea to tax, they struck the monarchy of George III where it would hurt his greedy heart the most: his pocketbook.

Lorei asked listeners for a modern-day example of the Boston Tea Party. Many made valiant attempts, such as suggesting cyber-terrorism, but they still missed the mark. To find a comparable event, you would have to look to the actions of a different country. Iraq, after the first gulf war, set oil wells aflame to prevent the victors (us) from co-opting the oil. The Boston Tea Party was a way to let England know it should not profit from the colonies without our permission. Iraq’s message was similar. Too bad the neocons didn’t get the memo. Not a terrorist act, unless your greatest fear is the loss of profits.

Terrorism is a symbolic act, intended to coerce or disrupt by striking fear (usually of death) in the minds of the victims. It has been used by many to change the course of a conflict when they are way out-numbered. The ancient Hebrews used guerrilla warfare to commit acts of terrorism to defeat such unevenly matched battles as those against the Greek Assyrians or the Romans.

The recent buzz is of “possible terrorist acts” to occur on Independence Day. If the symbolism of an imminent attack has already made anyone change their plans, then our enemies have already won.

So let’s separate the symbols from the symbolism and realize that any single act is not a full scale invasion (the shock-and-awe thing is more our bailiwick). The threat is not the act and an act (if it happens at all) is not the end of democracy. 911, if anything strengthened our resolve.

So bang the drums, clash the cymbals, fire the fireworks, and cheer for the Red, White and Blue.

But more importantly, here’s to what they stand for.

Gary Stein MPH, a native Detroiter, worked for the Centers for Disease Control, landed in the Tampa Bay area to work for the State Tobacco program and is now a policy consultant, a health advocate and activist and blogger for Huffington Post. He has also been the executive director for Health Equity and Accountable Care and the Policy Director for FAAST Inc. 

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