Driving through the outskirts of a small Georgia city, I was surprised to observe fifty to seventy mid-size U.S. flags planted about every twenty feet in the median of a divided highway. No sign announced what, if any, special meaning the flag display had.
I found the flag display, like many displays of the flag, distressing. People treat the flag too casually. Some flag displays are difficult to characterize as anything other than decorative, a use of the flag that Public Law 94-344 (the Federal Flag Code) prohibits. Bunting, not flags, is for decoration. I've also seen people display tattered, dirty, and greasy flags. The context suggests that the person displaying the flag is displaying the flag because he or she is proud to be an American. The flag's condition, however, sends just the opposite message: the U.S. is dirty, tattered, unjust, falling apart, etc.
My respect for the flag as a symbol began as a schoolchild saying the Pledge to Allegiance, developed as a Boy Scout learning to fold the flag and the proper way to destroy flags that were no longer serviceable, and matured over the course of a career in the Navy. Ashore, most activity paused every morning at 0800 for the flag raising and at sunset for its lowering. Military personnel salute the flag in passing; ceremonies usually begin and end with the posting and retiring of the colors.
Symbols can be potent. Anti-Vietnam war protesters who burned a U.S. flag to express their opposition to the war triggered visceral responses because the respect that many in the U.S. had for the flag. I opposed the war, defended (and still do!) the right to burn the flag as an expression of First Amendment protected free speech, but doubted that burning the flag sent the intended message.
Today, I very much doubt that flag burning would have the same potency. Flags now seem almost too ubiquitous, and are consequently widely ignored or treated with little respect.
Analogously, think of the cross, once a potent religious symbol and now widely worn as jewelry and treated with little respect. Crucifixion was a hideous form of execution. Few people who wear a cross would choose to replace their cross with a symbol of a modern form of execution such as an electric chair.
On the couple of occasions that I have suggested making the exchange to someone, they reacted with revulsion, and then added that they wore a cross rather than a crucifix as a symbol of Jesus' resurrection rather than his death. I wanted to ask, why not wear an empty tomb, but figured the question would probably not engender meaningful dialogue.
Humans, more than any other known life form, are symbolic. Language itself consists of symbols, whether the sounds of spoken words or the letters of written words. Words point to, or signify, their meaning (semanticists, linguists, and others debate the most precise, unambiguous formulation of this idea, further underscoring the symbolic character of language). Similarly, art, whether representational or abstract, is symbolic: the artist creates a work using one or more media to make a statement, convey a feeling, record something, etc.
When a symbol's potency diminishes, then that symbol's power to be a catalyst for change, insight, or communication diminishes. Any set of ideas linked to the symbol also tends to diminish in significance, unless a new symbol has supplanted the old one. In the cases of the cross and U.S. flag, no new symbols have emerged. Instead, both Christianity and American patriotism seem to be waning. Declines in Church attendance and belief in orthodox Christianity are well documented. A growing perception of Washington as them, insiders against whom politicians from outside the DC beltway run, points to a growing distance between Americans and their government.
Ironically, even as flags and crosses become ever more numerous their symbolic value approaches a new nadir. And that explains my distress at seeing casual displays of the flag and the cross. I'd much see someone sufficiently incensed over American policy who thinks that burning the flag (or upset about Christianity who creates a piece of art that depicts someone urinating on a cross) because they reassure me that significant numbers of people still value symbols, values, and ideas that are important to me.