Symbols, Idolatry, and Getting Over Your Racist Self

 

We have to talk about something, and it might not be entirely comfortable for you. We have to talk about race. More importantly, we have to talk about public, social, civil reactions to race.

 

Part of the job of a tarot reader is to observe, analyze, and interpret things that a client can’t see, doesn’t want to admit, refuses to acknowledge, or has neglected to take into consideration.

 

Another thing that tarot readers do is read symbols. Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, the cards themselves have no auspicious powers. The artwork on them is super inspirational to a fault—they can induce tarot readers and those who meditate on them to have awe-inspiring creative bursts of insight. But they are just pictures—not ghostly or angelic-imbued amulets, not Fantasia-like spirits that are going to sweep the floor for you. They are pieces of paper with symbols on them. Some of us are enthusiastically inspired by the artwork. And this is the thing I want to get at and why—as an official interpreter of symbols—I feel a duty to make these comments…

 

tarot card spread

Every last card…only a symbol. Don’t matter what deck you use. Every single card…nothing more than inspirational symbols.

 

It should not have escaped anyone’s notice that lately lots and lots of professional (and amateur) sports players have taken the opportunity among themselves to perform a symbolic ritual protesting the national anthem and the American flag. The reaction and blowback by some observers in our nation has been fierce and fiery.

 

I have opinions. As a symbologist, I have things to say…

 

Firstly, those who have engaged in the fiery rhetoric and condemnation of anthem-kneeling sports players—including the vast majority of the media reporting on the phenomenon—appear to have completely and utterly dismissed or ignored the original intent of the symbolic kneeling pose. I would venture to say that a majority of white-identifying Americans could not explain why sports players take a knee during the national anthem. In case you were wondering, this whole take-a-knee business was begun by then-member of the San Francisco 49ers, Colin Kaepernick, as a protest against unequal recognition and inequitable treatment of people of color by society in general, but in particular as reflected in differential police enforcement and protections towards African-Americans as opposed to the Caucasian demographic in the U.S.

 

49ers taking a knee

Colin Kaepernick (right) and a teammate “take-a-knee” during the National Anthem before a game.

 

Unfortunately, the original intent of the symbolic anthem kneel has been usurped by the media and by the majority of the public and retrofitted as a symbol of something wholly different—namely, “disrespect” for the American flag and for patriotism, which, ironically, are also themselves symbols.

 

And I think it’s a shame that this usurpation has taken place—in effect dismissing the volubility, urgency, and importance of the original symbolic intent, not only at a loss of national public discussion of the topic, but also because it dismisses the symbolic act’s creator as having no valuable opinion—his right to contribute his thoughts and argument relegated to second-class status—which only goes to prove and exacerbate the symbol’s original intent.

 

We have a problem in this country of a proclivity towards idolization. Perhaps it’s a general human foible to idolize things—a particular vice of the human animal. Which is perhaps why it became a God-given commandment to avoid it (“Thou shalt not have other gods before me”). Idolatry comes in many guises. It bothers me terribly to acknowledge that there’s a too large percentage of my countrymen and women who are breaking that commandment against idolatry in respect to a piece of fabric. (And I’m not disappointed for religious reasons so much as I am for common-sense reasons.)

 

The American flag does not have a soul. It doesn’t have a personality. It’s doesn’t have a heartbeat or a circulatory system. It doesn’t have a heart that can be broken, or an emotional center that can be damaged by the trauma of being relegated as a second-class citizen. A flag can’t have feelings or emotions; it’s a piece of fabric. The Pledge of Allegiance states directly that the flag is a symbol: “…and to the Republic for which it stands…” “The Pledge of Allegiance was written in August 1892 by the socialist minister Francis Bellamy (1855-1931). It was originally published in The Youth’s Companion on September 8, 1892. Bellamy had hoped that the pledge would be used by citizens in any country.”1

 

Of note: “The original Bellamy salute, first described in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, who authored the original Pledge, began with a military salute, and after reciting the words ‘to the flag,’ the arm was extended toward the flag… In World War II [it was determined that] the salute too much resembled the Nazi salute, so it was changed to keep the right hand over the heart throughout.”2 In other words, the symbolism of the times didn’t jive with the racism rampantly devouring Europe, so the United States created a new symbolic gesture for themselves. Huh…what a novel idea: if the current paradigm doesn’t reflect one’s values or experience, then it is appropriate to change the paradigm.

 

Certainly, people can imbue a piece of fabric with all sorts of projected characteristics. Throughout the ancient world and all the way through the Renaissance and beyond, people were still personifying things like Prudence and Fortitude, and Temperance, and Justice—giving those virtues godlike providence over the souls of men and women. But you get…right?…that those things are only theories that humans aspire to, that they are traits that we have idolized to such an extent that we attributed bodies and personalities to them for the purpose of storytelling and easier visualization. No one can actually see those characters except in old books, manuscripts, and paintings where they were illustrated.

 

The virtues personified

The Virtues personified in this painting by Peselino

 

Yes; humans can exhibit those virtues and traits, but they are what we call the “invisibles.” Hope, love, courage…the things the poets have tried to pin down for millennia, that artisans have tried in vain to concretize by giving bodily form in paintings. They are characteristics that make human beings what and who we are—but they aren’t substances or pills that we can take to magically be those things, or boost those attributes in ourselves.

 

Some poets and artisans throughout history have been so enthralled with those elusive invisibles that the symbols they’ve created—placed on equally imaginary pedestals—have been idolized as gods…literally. Eros the god of love, Athena the goddess of courage, Venus the goddess of beauty… The thing about these classical versions of the invisibles is that people could invite the virtuous parts of them into their hearts, could beseech the gods to imbue their special blessing upon us, and radiate those attributes into our earthly plane. But what happens when Temperance isn’t remembered? Narcissus wastes away at the edge of the pool when he becomes too infatuated with his own beauty; Odysseus loses hoards of his men when he becomes too self-assured of his skill and his courage exceeds prudence; over and over again, we can read of the folly of the ancients who met their demise due to their hubris, their overzealousness when it came to an all-too fervidness of their convictions…to their devotion to the invisibles, to the attributes that gave them a false sense of power.

 

Echo and Narcissus

Echo and Narcissus (1903) by John William Waterhouse

 

We should be afraid when a nation’s highest leader appoints more respect to a piece of material than he does to the human beings that he is charged with serving. A man who evaded military duty himself, and who doesn’t know the articles of the constitution, is hardly one to make the accusation that people are disrespecting service members when people kneel for the anthem. Those service members fought wars precisely to protect the rights of individuals to protest as determined by the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. Any service member who believes they fought or sacrificed a life for a piece of fabric was sadly misguided.

 

The Greek and Roman Classics are stories that have been handed down for thousands of years…partly because they are considered part of the rise of the “Western World,” and partly because the stories that they tell about our human nature are timeless and universal. It is a shame that the morals of those stories have eluded and escaped those who claim power right now as “leaders of the free Western World”—ironically the very cultural paradigm that their white nationalist supporters consider to be the epitome of a predominant racial type. Ironic hypocrisy, however, is the standard bearer of this administration.

 

Virtuous human beings don’t value things over people. We don’t value a piece of fabric over the rights of men. We don’t value a nationalistic musical tune over the suffering of our flesh-and-blood brethren. “Christianity” is another “invisible,” and is also something that has been idolized by a righteous few. And again, the ironic hypocrisy of valuing Christianity as a privileged culture—as opposed to practicing its virtues and absorbing its moral offerings—doesn’t escape us at all.

 

You have to decide what is important to you. People?…or things? Because history is a vicious recorder.

 

 

NOTES:

 

[1]     from the website USHistory.org (http://www.ushistory.org/documents/pledge.htm) (last accessed 10/8/2017).

[2]     Ibid.

 

 

 

 

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Posted in Discovering Meaning in Imagery, Reading for Virtue, Tarot Reading, Virtue Philosophy and tagged , , , .

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