The clashing of symbols

Posted: Jul 04, 2006 12:00 AM
Justice Anthony Kennedy on Monday stayed the forced removal of a 29-foot high cross from city property in San Diego -- six days after the Senate failed by a single vote to pass a constitutional amendment that forbids flag-burning.

It's a mixed moment for mighty symbols. Which figures, given the scrambled-egg quality of modern emotions and perceptions. We can't seem to believe one thing anymore without looking over our shoulders to see what else we can affirm: a precarious way to do business as a nation, even a nation conspicuously tolerant of differentness. Or convinced that it is.

One might say, so what if a cross comes down from a mountaintop and a protective measure for the national colors fails? It might not matter much in the nuts-and-bolts sense. It would matter symbolically. That's what symbols are about -- symbolism -- and we don't seem to get it these days.

As the perpetually irritating senator from Wisconsin, Russ Feingold (who sometimes makes one miss Joe McCarthy), said in opposing the flag-burning amendment, "America is not significantly a nation of symbols, it is a nation of principles." Well, yeah, senator -- a nation whose symbols symbolize (i.e., "stand for") its principles. It is what symbols are about: Seeing a thing, an idea, a doctrine, a notion, a truth, through the physical presence of a symbol.

I mean, it is one thing to reverence free speech. I hope no one in America reverences it more than I myself, bred to honor the free-speech tradition of the free (if you don't count the 50-cent price of entry) press. We talk because we love to talk and, more to the point, because talk generates thought, which generates --theoretically -- responsible actions.

Can't we have all this despite people's burning flags as a method -- yuk, yuk -- of exercising their free speech? Well, I don't know. For a while, we can. That's until attacks on the symbol turn into attacks on the substance. If you attack a symbol of free speech, don't you attack free speech as well? Many of my brethren in the media seem not to think so. I rise to suggest -- exercising my free speech rights -- that they're balmy. At least insofar as they believe that kind of craven, super-tolerant intellectual rubbish. A word about the cross, as well. It stands in San Diego, a 52-year-old memorial to Korean War veterans. A local atheist has long sought to remove it. He may yet succeed, given the intellectual temperature of this nation. For the short run, thanks to Justice Kennedy's order, he stands at bay. The symbolism of the cross is patent. On the old, rugged cross of Calvary, Jesus Christ died. To this event, and its deep meaning, a generic cross calls thought and memory.

Wellnowjustaminutehere. The San Diego atheist argues that the cross' presence privileges Christianity over other religions. He wants it down now.

But don't we see what that means in turn? Don't we catch scents of the symbolism? What our atheist, Philip Paulson, hopes to achieve, with the federal courts' concurrence, is the public degradation of Christianity -- the back of our hand, at least in San Diego, to the religious faith upon which, in large measure, the American consensus, the American vision, presently rests. Which faith might just (consider, Mr. Paulson) be true. Unless all faiths are equally untrue: a claim for which the American public isn't ready, I strongly suspect.

Many -- too many -- in my profession, the media, are quick to pooh-pooh the importance of symbols to our life together as Americans, as people of faith, as people who don't (unlike Feingold and Paulson) insist on having their own way at other people's expense.

To tear down what others esteem isn't to level any intellectual playing field. It's to put thumb to nose and deliver a loud raspberry to those less enlightened than the raspberry-blower. And you don't think that's symbolism, Mr. Paulson? You don't think so, Sen. Feingold?

I know a few places in Texas I'd enjoy -- symbolically, of course -- watching you try it.

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