The uproar over Indiana's "religious freedom" law and the
atrocity in Charleston, South Carolina, hardly occupy the same realm of
gravity. Yet I've been unable to resist making a connection when it comes to
They are a matched set of examples of the power that
symbolism carries for today's citizen, and the potential of that symbolism for
them not to add another spoon to over-stirred pots of the moment, but to raise
a larger question about ideas and ideals as they are embodied in public
expression -- words (written and spoken) and images, especially those of flags -- Rebel, Rainbow or Republic.
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
San Francisco artist Gilbert Baker designed and created the Rainbow Flag in 1978. A symbol for the LGBT community, it was originally comprised of eight different colored stripes, though it now has six.
of these current instances, language -- a verbal or visual representation of a
volatile abstract idea -- got itself attached to a real, concrete event that was
unwelcome, largely unanticipated and, in the latter case, incomprehensibly
In each, the media and officialdom were quick to respond.
Something had to be done. Something had to be done about ... Discrimination
against gay people? Racial inequality? Availability of guns to any homicidal crackpot who has a few bucks?
Not so much. First and foremost, something had to be done
What better occasion than Independence Day, when we are
exhorted to rally as one people around a flag, which is routinely waved by
groups that hate other groups, to review the ways this maneuver was carried
In Indiana, a moral issue was barely a speed bump until it
morphed into a financial fiasco and PR problem. If the state was not going to
be seen by the outside world as a bigoted backwater unworthy of corporate talent
and tourist dollars, then it could not be waving about an anti-gay statute.
mass murder put a flag on trial. If racism in the Deep
South had metastasized in the slaughter of nine innocent people in a church, then it was time to reconsider decorating government buildings with an emblem of plantation racism.
Much ado, all this amounts to -- not about nothing, God
knows; but rather, toward nothing.
George Orwell himself must be smiling somewhere over the
dance Indiana's Republican leaders and the "enlightened" business establishment performed with
the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
click to enlarge
Photo by Jami Stall
This Fourth of July weekend, Old Glory will be a popular symbol in the United States.
First, the political leadership denied that a measure that was
explicitly drawn up as a backlash against same-sex marriage was meant to
discriminate against anyone.
Then they explicitly refused to add gender orientation to
the state's anti-discrimination law. And continued fighting
same-sex marriage in court.
Then they held a gala press conference, an all-star revue of
movers and shakers, to announce to the moneyed world that Hoosiers were e pluribus unum.
Then they hired an out-of-state public relations outfit, at
an estimated ultimate cost of $2 million, to get to work on the state's image.
With apologies to Marshall McLuhan, Plato, Vance Packard and
George Carlin, the message was about the message was about the message. The
reality behind the message was reduced to a shuddering shadow of marginal
You can get fired or evicted in Indiana for being gay, but you have elected
officials and the Chamber of Commerce denouncing what they're letting happen to
you. It is up to you to treat the abstract as concrete. After all, the guys who
call the shots do, and so do their recording secretaries in the mass media.
In South Carolina, as elsewhere in the South and as far and
wide as Wal-Mart itself, a symbol likewise has come under fire - not within
days, as with RFRA, but more than a half century after it went aloft in
official defiance of the Civil Rights movement.
All arguments and interpretations aside, the Stars and Bars
is unquestionably a symbol so potent as to permeate the membrane separating
abstract from flesh. Never mind how many pickup trucks, bikinis and coffee cups
it adorns; the banner packs nearly the incendiary punch of the swastika and is
flown by a good many Americans out of the same sentiment toward blacks and Jews.
Many more who don't go that far cherish the Confederate flag
as a memorial to insurrection and a badge of separate nationhood, even if they
often as not fly Old Glory alongside it. As a marker of the polarization of America under
its first black president, this symbol is as precise as it is provocative.
Which raises the question: How could responsible public
servants of either party have been comfortable working under the Rebel flag
until one June day in 2015?
Catastrophe gets action, or more precisely reaction, from
political "leadership," and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, among others, had
to do something. The something was to
target a villain of visual language, leaving intact the policies that persuade
the vast majority of blacks in America
that the Confederate flag is not misleading or outdated at all. It means what
the demagogues say.
In two red states, then, justice issues have been reduced to
image problems, and re-branding is under way. Change the words, change the
pictures, forget the substance. It's nothing new and
certainly not exclusive to the right wing. We've always pledged allegiance to
the flag, never to everybody for whom it stands.
This Fourth of July finds us as polarized as ever. But in this
age of media saturation, we have more choices of "realities" than ever. If you
disagree, print this essay out and burn it. You'll feel much better.
The Fountain Square Music Festival promises to add rock to your patriotic pursuits this Fourth of July with a diverse lineup. Check out this sampler of some of the local sounds attendees will experience.
Bio: Dan Carpenter is a man of his words: a former columnist for The Indianapolis Star, author of Hard Pieces and Indiana Out Loud
and writer of short stories and poetry, including a published collection of poems entitled More Than I Could See. He also blogs for InForefront and writes columns for The StatehouseFile.com...
Dan Carpenter is a man of his words: a former columnist for The Indianapolis Star, author of Hard Pieces and Indiana Out Loud
and writer of short stories and poetry, including a published collection of poems entitled More Than I Could See. He also blogs for InForefront and writes columns for The StatehouseFile.com. Father of two, Carpenter and his wife, Mary, live in Butler-Tarkington.