Monday, June 14, 1999

Week of 06/14/1999

The Fallacy Of Symbolism Over Substance
- by David Matthews 2

A guy showed up at the checkout counter of a corner grocery store with an armful of goodies. He patiently waited for the cashier to ring up each and every item.

"That’ll be $9.95," the cashier said.

The guy reached into his pocket and pulled out a Polaroid picture, and put it on the counter. The cashier looked at it.

"What the hell is this for?" the cashier asked.

"That’s for the groceries," the guy said with a smile. "You can keep the change."

The cashier looked down at the snapshot, then looked around to make sure some gag film crew wasn’t taping the bizarre scene.

"Listen buddy," the cashier said, obviously not amused, "we deal with MONEY, not pictures."

"Oh but that IS money," the guy insisted as he pointed at the picture. "Look closely, you’ll see it."

"I already saw it," as he flipped the picture back at the guy. "And I tell ya, we deal with money. M-O-N-E-Y. Money. Not pictures!"

"Oh, but that is as good as money," the guy insisted. "Now are you going to finish ringing that up or what?"

The cashier got flustered, so he asked for the manager to come up front to deal with this obvious wacko. But instead of confronting the guy, the manager simply whispered something into the ear of the cashier, then started to lead the guy towards the door.

"I’m sorry about that," the manager said apologetically. "He’s sort of new to this. He’ll be finished ringing up your purchases in a second."

Seconds later, the cashier returned with a shopping bag to give to the guy. The bag was really light, so he peered inside and found nothing but snapshots.

"What the hell..?" the guy exclaimed.

"I’m sorry, did we miss an item?" the manager asked.

The guy pulled out snapshots of each and every item he intended to purchase. He turned to face the manager, who had already returned to the counter to grab the bag containing the real items.

"And when you come back with the REAL ten dollar bill you took this picture of," said the manager as he waived the original photo with his other hand, "then we’ll give you your real groceries!"

As absurd as you may think that above story is, it does get to the core of one of the hidden problems we face in America.. placing symbolism over substance.

This week, Americans celebrate Flag Day, a day when we are to remember the creation of the American flag. Old Glory. The Stars And Stripes. A day that is just chock full of symbolism. Patriotic messages about how great America is, how rich in heritage and tradition.. military veterans talk with reverent pride about how they served their country to protect that flag, and how their friends died for that flag… No doubt President Clinton himself will make some kind of pseudo-patriotic speech about "preserving democracy and the American way of life," and how we should all be thankful that an old maid by the name of Betsy Ross fashioned a symbol for America.

And yet, at the same time, there is no doubt that Old Glory will be truly desecrated repeatedly between now and July 4th.

Not by protesters, mind you. But rather by individuals who would say what they are doing is to "preserve" the flag.

Every year for well over a decade now, politicians have decided that this period of time between Memorial Day and the Fourth of July would be to change the US Constitution to allow Congress to outlaw the physical desecration of the American flag. Politicians and moralists believe that the flag is SO powerful a symbol for everything America stands for that they would place its position as a symbol above the very freedoms it represents.

To hammer home this belief that a symbol is more important than its meaning, politicians are eager to haul out veterans groups and former prisoners of foreign wars in front a camera to tell them how they and their brethren endured endless torment for their devotion to that flag, compelling them to recall those instances of torment, convinced in their belief that everything would be worth it if the flag was respected far above the principles that it sustains.

Now let’s get brutally honest here.. this, too, is a form of desecration, but at a more insidious level than some passionate protester with a lighter. The protester with a lighter can destroy a flag, but they can never destroy what that flag stands for. Even if every flag in America were to suddenly and spontaneously combust, what those flags represented would not be affected. That particular indignity is left to our elected officials when they decide that what the flag of the United States represents is not as important than the piece of intricately woven cloth itself. Worse yet, it is done in the name of "preserving" the very symbol it desecrates.

The problem of symbolism over substance is not a new issue. Guys like Rush Limbaugh have been talking about it for years now. But Limbaugh only emphasizes the liberal side of this problem, while quietly allowing the conservative side to continue uncontested. Unfortunately, this problem goes beyond the outdated 1-dimensional political spectrum.

Moralists - be they liberal, conservative, theocratic, or authoritarian - live for symbolism. They believe that their vision of the world is how the way things not just should be, but must be. That is what draws them to politics, an intellectual institution that deals with a lot of symbolism, but also with a lot of real power to force other people to do their bidding. They have a need.. some would say an obsession.. to force the world around them to conform to their ideals.

But there is an inherent flaw in using legislation to change society.. it is a cosmetic change at best.

In 1919, anti-liquor moralists got legislators to pass the Eighteenth Amendment to the US Constitution. This was the Volstead Act, which outlawed liquor in America. It began 13 years of Prohibition that moralists insisted would make the country safer and more secure from the evils of the world.

Did it work? No it didn’t.

Matter of fact, it created even more problems. Now illegal, many citizens resorted to hidden speakeasies. Liquor was disguised as tea or soda or even medication. And if it wasn’t manufactured at home, it was either made or imported into the country by the more seedy entrepreneurs like Dutch Schultz, Solly Weissman, and Al Capone. Organized crime crept further into society. Alcoholism went from being a societal problem to being a hidden problem, since admitting to it now made one a criminal.

So thirteen years after the law that was supposed to change America for the better was passed, Americans did the right thing and repealed it with the Twenty-First Amendment. The law that Senator Andrew Volstead said could never be repealed, in fact, was repealed by the outrage of the American people.

Prohibition was sold on images and illusions. It was sold on the false promise that if the law was passed, everything would be right in the world. But even today, temperance moralists cling to that impossible fantasy, that obsessive delusion that all the problems of the world would be cured if only we were to get rid of the demon rum.

Placing symbolism over substance is a common theme for many of the so-called "family issues" in America. It doesn’t matter if it is about sex, alcohol, violence, drugs, guns, music, or the Internet. Moralists contend that everything in the world would be okay if the legislators would just pass a law.

It doesn’t matter, the moralists say, if the law is unenforceable. Just pass the law. It doesn’t matter if it is in direct opposition to everything the founding fathers wanted. Just pass the law. It doesn’t matter if the ultimate costs of such a law would do far more harm than good. Just pass the damn law and everything will be okay!

Those few legislators who do support freedom find it difficult to either support or defend that which the moralists have so publicly vilified. Who dares to speak for free speech if that speech is not considered mainstream? Who dares to support a manner of expression that the media has proclaimed to be improper? Who dares to support an adult to willingly engaging in behavior that the moralists deem to be offensive?

Ultimately, though, placing symbolism over substance is an insidious means of destroying the very symbol itself. What does free speech mean if only mainstream speech is allowed to be expressed? What does the freedom to choose mean if you’re only allowed one option? What does a US Flag mean if the very freedom it was created for is slowly and deliberately destroyed? Nothing. It would be an empty symbol.

A symbol is nothing more than the representation of something far greater than itself. Once we begin to place that symbol on a level higher than what it represents, that symbol loses its very meaning. When that happens, then much like our fictional shopper at the start of this article, we had might as well start paying with symbols of our currency instead of the real thing.

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