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Flags and their symbolism

By in Press Enterprise on September 15, 2017

By Richard Lavin

When I was a high school teacher, I often asked my students to look around the room and find something that exists purely as a symbol. Then I’d wait until someone pointed to the American flag that was mounted on the wall next to the whiteboard.

“Yes,” I’d say, “the flag has no function other than to symbolize our nation.” In my classroom’s case, the flag couldn’t even double as a scarf or a dish towel because its cheap synthetic cloth made it quite useless for anything other than standing for the republic of the United States of America.

Students sometimes object to teachers insisting that characters or objects in literature have symbolic value. “Why can’t a raven just be a talking bird instead of a symbol of death?” they’d ask. Or, “What if the road less traveled by was nothing more than a shortcut to the bowling alley?”

The answer is that they’re right. The audience may ignore the symbolic value of what they see or hear, but only if they honestly can find no resonance of that symbol in their own lives. You may tell me that a totem in an arcane religious ceremony stands for some deity, but if I am not versed in that particular belief system, its meaning may well be lost on me. But when symbols enter our cultural language, only those who are willfully ignorant deny their meaning. Indeed, some symbols are called trademarks and their meaning is protected by the courts. Try to build a restaurant beneath a pair of golden arches and see what happens to you.

The key word is resonance. Symbols live or die by the echoes they evoke in their audience’s minds. In this way, our cultural language prevails over the historic origins of symbols. For example, the swastika originated in Buddhist […]    

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