Last week, my boss and I continued a tradition of celebrating the end of a hard summer of non-stop work with a trip to Cedar Point amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio. Just before the morning gates opened, a recorded announcement interrupted the standard musical wallpaper, asking us to stand and sing the Star-Spangled Banner. Much of the crowd seemed a bit confused, as I was, because there was no displayed flag in sight. I questioned the wisdom of the amusement park management: What of domestic patrons and tourists from other countries who find American patriotism unsettling? Then I remembered we were firmly in Republican territory. Not only Ohio but every state bordering it, the immediate customer market for this park, went for Trump in 2016. Without being totally cynical about the motives of Cedar Point management, I reflected that perhaps here patriotism and marketing conveniently coincided.
Symbols as signs (signifier + signified) cohere and constitute peoples under specific cultural orders. Americanness is parallel to Christianity in that it can be argued as largely a symbolic belief and practice, one adoptable by anyone. For many genuine people, to be American is in no small part to pledge allegiance not to flag as flag, but to flag as sign, an arbitrary signifier of certain signifieds: the rule of law, a certain Enlightenment notion of liberty, natural rights and power of rulers as not essential but contingent upon their responsible and accountable stewardship of the ruled. Yet our current political moment shares with the largely contentious majority of our political history a passionate fight about the order of our signs. Does the flag signify the best of human political order giving the greatest possible opportunity to individuals and families or just a genocidal land grab? What of the open wound of the slavery practiced by many intellectual founders still festering in the form of racial inequality? Is the flag an indelible symbol of white supremacy in practice? Historically peoples are more or less coherent depending on the firmness of linkage between certain signifiers and signifieds. Because we cannot agree on the signifieds, struggles play out over the presence of the signifiers.
I have had quarrel with the pledge and the anthem since I was a teen. There is not liberty and justice for all in America yet. No symbolic ritual worshipping the flag without reflection will correct that situation, only philosophical theorization and political practice will. However as the Big Lebowski rightly said, nihilism is exhausting. I was exhausted by another flag I actually did see at Cedar Point last week. A patron’s t-shirt rendered the flag stars as fifty ping-pong balls and the red stripes as rows of red Solo cups. While I appreciate subversive art as much, usually more, than the next person and did chuckle a bit, America should not be trivialized as signifying the drunken hedonism of a beer pong game. The collective good and evil deeds performed on the stage of its debated core principles are too important to nihilistically reduce this way. Yet the wearer and designer of this shirt have every First Amendment right that I do. In the wake of Silent Sam’s toppling, over the coming year I will be largely thinking about how we share, or don’t share, symbolic orders and what that means for our communities going forward. I invite our readers to do the same.