Burn the flag

Welcome to this week's Reno News & Review.

Let's talk about symbolism. More specifically, let's talk about the symbolism of the Confederate battle flag in South Carolina. The issue is that many people believe the flag should be removed from the grounds of the statehouse.

They believe the Confederate flag is a symbol of racism, of intimidation of people of color, and a visual representation of the legal fiction of equality. Those people are right.

Then there are the people who say the flag is a symbol of rebellion, a reminder of personal heritage, an image of Southern regional pride. Those people are also right.

It is possible for well-meaning people on either side to have a diametrically opposed opinion without anyone assuming hate on the part of the other. But that's not the American way.

Spend any time at all thinking about the meaning of things, and you'll realize every single symbol has meanings as different as two sides of a coin. Consider how a Christian might interpret a crucifix versus how a Muslim might interpret it. Symbols don't have intrinsic objective meaning; the only meaning they have is the meaning people bring to them. For the vast majority of humanity, that Confederate flag has no meaning at all. Until recently, I never attached any particular meaning to it, except it vaguely symbolized the South for me.

So the issue before the South Carolina legislature isn't whether they can support the actual meaning of the flag, because it doesn't have one. The issue is whether the government wants to associate its own symbolism—how people perceive South Carolina—with the many interpretations of the Confederate flag. I think there are few Americans who'd say those legislators shouldn't be able to fly the flag, as opposed to those who would say they should decide not to fly it because they renounce the ideals many people have come to associate with it.

This is not a country that should ever regulate speech or symbols with laws because a percentage of the population is offended. I think the most powerful repudiation of those Civil War principles would be for crowds of people to begin burning that flag.