Earlier this morning, as I was trolling through articles and blog posts trying to put together a comprehensive picture on how the debate went last night, I came across an idea that at the time provoked a small bit of interest, but in my eagerness to get my own analysis done, I simply tucked that interest away and moved on.

As the day progressed, however, that idea began to nag at me until it grew to such proprotions that I could no longer ignore it.

Unfortunately, I’m going to have to apologize to the originator as I have lost the source, but if I do manage to dig it up, I’ll go back and source it.  But to paraphrase, has anyone noticed that the backdrop for these debates is always some variation of the American Flag?

Of course you did, you can’t miss it.  Each debate is filled with computer generated graphics of swooping metallic white stars and waves of red, white and blue.  Large depictions of the national colors are splayed behind the candidates; flags blowing in the wind, or the more abstract arrangements of seemingly randomized segments of Old Glory pulled apart and thrown back together in a mish mosh of good old fashioned patriotism.

No big deal, right?  But then, why is it always the flag?  Why not the constitution?

That was the little bug planted in my brain mid morning as I scrambled to put together a final analysis.  Why not use some artistically rendered depiction of the Constitution of the United States of America as the backdrop instead of the American Flag?

It’s a more significant question than one may initially think, and one that brings into stark contrast the differences between two great symbols and the mentalities of the American society.

There can be not argument, both the Flag and the Constitution are strong symbols for American idealism.  But there is a vast discrepency between the two.

In the case of the Flag, while there are textbook answers to what it is intended to represent, what you will find is that its actual meaning, being without inscribed words, is fluid and maleable from one person to the next.  It is not, in fact, challenging of ones own personal ideals, but instead confirm.  It is, in this respect, an abstract in that it gives back to you what you bring to it.

It is for this reason that the symbolism of the flag has been misused so blatantly by politicians and idealogues, victimizing the lack of solidified symbolism to shape its meaning to whatever brand of patriotism that best suits the user.  A great example of this could be the uproar that existed over the comments made by Barack Obama when he tried to explain why he didn’t wear the American Flag pin on his lapel.  For so many, who believe the flag to be a sufficient on its own standard for expressing patriotism, one who did not decide to wear the pin could easily be misconstrued as unpatriotic, or a hater of America.

The Flag carries with it that unfortunate side effect of being ambiguous and therefore exploitable.  This can thusly be said to be analogous to the nature of the political debate as it stands today; ill defined and unnecessarily combative.  Somehow, arrogance has been bred and encouraged in the national debate today, and thus individual definitions of patriotism go unchallenged by the most important people to challenge them; those who set the definition.

It is this tendency that has at least in a small part helped to aid the kind of bitterness that plagues the political sphere.  We define our own parameters of what is and what is not right, and we are not challenged in that definition, and thus, we seek out those who are solidly in agreement with us, and those who are not, their ideas are not weighed on their own merits but are immediately categorized as wrong which in this context becomes synonymous with unpatriotic.

This ambiguity which leads one down a dark path to patriotism casts in severe contrast the effectiveness of the Constitution as an equally patriotic symbol.  Whereas the American Flag carries with it no significant intellectual propriety, the Constitution is itself a document, its great symbolism buried within its words and ideas.

While the Constitution itself will forever be debated by constitutional scholars and patriots, its various meanings weighed, and its very body adapted to meet the times, it also carries with it boundaries and standards.  It comes with an inherent quality to challenge one’s own ideas of what it means to be American.

It is easy enough to say one thing or another is patriotic, that one idea is good for America, and under the symbolism of the Flag that idea has no restrictions, but under the Constitution, we find that ideas must meet the test, the Constitutional test, before they can be admitted as ideas that are in fact in keeping with the document by which our Union is held together under a common law.

For instance, the Flag will not tell you whether it is patriotic or not to believe that only Christians should be American, or should be in power, but the Constitution makes it pretty clear that such an idea is the antithesis of true patriotic thinking, and goes against the grain of how this country is structured and intended to function.

It is this fact, that the Constitution serves as both symbol and instruction manual, that gives it its ultimate power, and provides it a very unique place in the American culture.  The flag, which carries with it no words, can not compete, just as the Declaration of Independence, so eloquent and powerful in its execution, fails to compare out of the sheer fact that it is a document that has no actionable power.

On the other hand, the Constitution is law.  But more than that, it is symbolic of the agreement between the people and its government, a timeless statement that this should forever be a country of the people, by the people, for “We the people”.

It is, in other words, not only defined by its verbage, but provides at least a starting definition of what we should be.  It challenges us.  It does not merely ask to be filled, but requires from us a commitment, and at the very least an upholding of standards.

This brings us to what is perhaps the final part of the argument.  The Flag is not at risk.  You can buy an American flag for about five dollars online.  Sure, there might have been something of a shortage after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, but that wasn’t because there was some nation crippling flag crisis, but instead because the demand sky rocketed over the supply.

And while there are many many copies of the US Constitution, enough to where even if the original were to be destroyed, the information and wording would be preserved (barring of course some crazy Orwellian effort to destroy every known copy, electric and hard, out there), the true power of the Constitution is at risk.  The document itself is only ever as powerful as the adherence of the two primary parties involved in the pact it represents; those who govern, and the governed.

And yes, that IS at risk.  It is what we talk about every day here at Comments From Left Field; from the abomination of FISA to the politicization of the Department of Justice, to the continuous assault on the wall between Church and State by tragically powerful leaders of the Religious Right.  From waterboarding to wiretapping, the threats to the soul of the Constitution are numerous and serious.

In the course of the campaigns and the debates, there is much talk about “the most solemn duty” of the president, and often times these solemn duties have a tendency to change to meet the needs of the moment, but let’s not quibble, the single most important task of the next President of the United States will be to restore proper power to the Constitution of the United States of America.

And, this being the case, I think it wouldn’t hurt to use the Constitution as a backdrop for the debates, if only to remind the candidates vying for the Oval Office of that little fact once in a while.

One Response to “Symbolism”

  1. Paul F Davis says:

    I liked the Oct. 30, 2007 debate better when Senator John Edwards confronted the corruption in the Bush administration and the double-talk of Senator Clinton.

    The American people need a war on corruption.

    Thank God for the few like John Edwards and Ron Paul with a backbone to confront corruption in government.

    Paul F Davis – author of United States of Arrogance

    Orlando, FL

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