Symbols and reality

“Not long ago Congress voted, with much patriotic rhetoric, for the imposition of severe penalties upon anyone presuming to burn the flag of the United States. Yet the very Congressmen who passed this law are responsible, by acts of commission or omission, for burning, polluting, and plundering the territory that the flag is supposed to represent. Therein, they exemplified the peculiar and perhaps fatal fallacy of civilization: the confusion of symbol with reality.”
— Alan Watts (“Does It Matter?”, 1970)

The “Star-Spangled Banner” is a symbol. Like all national flags and anthems, it points to something bigger than itself. To worship the flag as an object (or to hug and kiss it), but fail to understand the values that they represent is to confuse the map with the territory, the symbol with reality.

This is part of the reason why Trump pretends to be upset when athletes kneel in meaningful protest when the national anthem is played at sporting events. His mind just can’t get beyond the superficiality of anything.

It’s also why his recent photo op stunt in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church — where he held aloft an upside-down Bible for cameras before lumbering away without uttering a single meaningful word — rang so hollow. . To him, symbols are all surface, no depth; they are an end, not a means to an end.

But Trump doesn’t have the moral capacity or intellectual curiosity to consider, let alone seek, any deeper meaning in anything. He’s entranced by superficiality.

I’m not American or Christian but I can still see the irony of it all: no one has done more to try and destroy the values that this flag, anthem and book are meant to represent than Trump himself.


Photo by Nelson Ndongala