Recently Sara Palin emerged like Puxatawny Phil. Fortunately she emerges only about as often these days. When she does, she always leaves a shadow. Palin spoke recently to the Conservative Political Action Committee convention. Her 15-minutes-of-fame, stretched to an hour, nearly over, this speech may have been her last hurrah. Watching her, you could not help but think how America’s most meaningful symbols have changed in recent years.
When a group of Marines hoisted the American flag over Iwo Jima, the symbolism was clear. America was strong, its people brave. Americans and their government had accomplished something important. Here was Palin hoisting a 32-ounce paper cup filled with Coke. That cup was a symbol of the disdain she and her followers feel for government and even minor efforts to reduce health care costs and encourage responsible choices.
Symbols matter. National symbols tell others what’s important to a people and teach their young the country’s values. Icons like the flag, the eagle, the Statue of Liberty and so many others have served over decades as shorthand for patriotism and a united commitment to one another. Today’s symbols are entirely different. Many seem to speak more to our differences and to a disdain for one another and our government.
The first Tea Party was a gathering of colonists at the Old South Meeting House in Boston in December 1773 to protest against taxation without representation. Today’s Tea Party is a gathering of angry white people, many of whom are receiving government healthcare while they protest what they’ve been told is a government take-over of our healthcare system
For many folks, a lighted cigarette has become the primary symbol of liberty. People who have little concern about whether someone’s right to vote is being limited or denied scream bloody-murder if they think those they elected are going to limit their “right” to smoke.
States like Mississippi implore the courts to exempt them from requirements of the Voting Rights Act while busying themselves passing what they call “the anti-Bloomberg law,” prohibiting free people from passing laws in a democratic process if those laws impinge on the “rights” of overweight people to eat fast food and teach their children to do the same.
The gun has evolved into the most revered of all national symbols of freedom. People who would deny Muslims the right to build a mosque and worship freely believe the right to bear military style arms with high-velocity clips filled with bullets is the most fundamental right of all. They would deny same-sex couples the right to marry while defining traditional marriage as a relationship between a man and his gun. Some claim the gun is the primary symbol of all “God-given rights.”
The gun has become the symbol of the final triumph of rights over responsibilities. The NRA has promoted new laws and constitutional amendments across the country naming the right to own a gun a fundamental and preeminent right. Already courts in Louisiana have ruled the language prohibits the government from denying guns to violent felons. How’s that for the new symbolism of freedom?
But the gun as a symbol of the wont to exercise rights with no responsibility is not alone. Cigarettes, 32-ounce tubs of soft drinks, shifting one’s healthcare costs to the rest of us symbolize the freedom to ignore your own health in favor of having the rest of us pick up the tab.
The Bible, at one time the symbol of the freedom to worship, has evolved into a symbol for the triumph of notions and prejudice over reason, reflection and science. It’s a symbol for many that global warming is an anti-God hoax, that Barack Obama is the anti-Christ, and an all-out war in the Middle East will usher in the Second Coming.
The nations founders would not be happy. They’d regret their failure to include a Bill of Responsibilities alongside their Bill of Rights. If they emerged they might or might not see their shadow but they wouldn’t recognize it.