By Donella Meadows
–June 29, 1989–
“I fought for three years for that flag. Anyone who burns it must be a traitor.”
That was one man-on-the-street’s comment this week in response to the president’s call for a constitutional amendment banning flag burning. Most people who were interviewed supported the president, many with high emotion.
“The flag is the symbol of our country. No one has the right to burn it.”
“People who would even think of doing that are criminals, and they ought to be treated as criminals.”
In only one news report did I hear a respondent observe, quietly, “It’s just a piece of cloth.”
Listening to the president’s statement and the approving echoes of my fellow citizens, I shuddered. What kind of civic education has our population received? What kind of BASIC education, if we can’t distinguish between a symbol and reality? Does that veteran really think he fought three years for a FLAG, rather than for a nation, one of the few nations in the world in which all citizens can criticize the government, using any symbols they choose?
I suppose every one of us has at some time been furious with our government. The government gives us plenty of good reasons to be furious, from illegal wars to unwarranted infringements of our personal freedoms to an incomprehensible and unjust tax system. As we have recently learned, it ripped off taxpayer dollars at HUD and will be ripping off more to cover the greed of the savings and loans industry. I can understand citizen outrage.
I can’t understand, though, why people would express their displeasure by burning a piece of cloth when, in this democratic nation, they have so many more effective actions open to them. I also can’t understand why that gesture of flag burning, which harms no one and changes nothing, so enrages other citizens. Sometimes I wish everyone would read a book I use when I’m educating future citizens: S.I. Hayakawa’s Language in Thought and Action.
“The symbol is NOT the thing symbolized,” thunders Hayakawa. “The map is NOT the territory. The word is NOT the thing.
“Most societies systematically encourage … the habitual confusion of symbols with things symbolized. For example, if a Japanese schoolhouse caught fire, it used to be obligatory in the days of emperor-worship to try to rescue the emperor’s picture (there was one in every schoolhouse), even at the risk of one’s life…. The symbols of piety, of civic virtue, or of patriotism are often prized above actual piety, civic virtue, or patriotism. In one way or another, we are all like the student who cheats on his exams in order to make Phi Beta Kappa; it is so much more important to have the symbol than the things it stands for.”
That is the best explanation I have heard for how a president could be willing to REQUIRE people to say the Pledge of Allegiance and to PUNISH people for burning the flag — to use the force of government to strengthen the SYMBOLS of freedom while undermining real freedom — and how the people could actually be willing to let him do it.
It’s not really surprising, I guess, that we muddle symbols and reality. We are taught every day to do exactly that. We are told that owning a big car makes one an important person; that wearing fashionable clothes makes one more attractive; that having lots of things bought with credit cards makes one well off. We are told that going into debt to buy powerful, expensive, unusable weapons makes us a powerful nation. Some people profit greatly from keeping us confused about symbols and reality.
Says Hayakawa, bluntly: “We live in an environment shaped and largely created by … mass-circulation newspapers and magazines which are given to reflecting, in a shocking number of cases, the weird prejudices and obsessions of their publishers and owners; (and by) radio and television programs … almost completely dominated by commercial motives; (and by) public-relations counsels who are simply highly paid craftsmen in the art of manipulating and reshaping our semantic environment in ways favorable to their clients….
“Citizens of a modern society need, therefore, … to be systematically aware of the powers and limitations of symbols, if they are to guard against being driven into complete bewilderment.”
Let us think clearly and avoid bewilderment. The flag is not the government. It is not the nation. The Pledge of Allegiance is not allegiance. People who can’t understand those distinctions are in grave danger of ending up with every possible symbol of freedom — and with no freedom.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1989