We must not allow the symbols of the bedrock principles of our society, principles of freedom, justice and equality, come to mean something contrary to that for which they originally stood. Symbols are powerful things. The British writer Thomas Carlyle wrote, “It is in and through symbolism that man consciously or unconsciously lives, works, and has his being. Those ages, moreover, are accounted the noblest which can best recognize symbolical worth, and prize it the highest.”
One of the most powerful things about symbols is that they can convey a broad range of meanings. The meaning of a symbol can change. And a symbol can mean different things to different people. Once when asked about the meaning of one of his songs, Bob Dylan is purported to have said, “I don’t know, what does it mean to you?”
These thoughts about symbols have been on my mind lately as I’ve watched monuments being vandalized and torn down during the past few weeks. While it has not been hard to understand why monuments to Confederate military leaders should be removed as they symbolize bigotry, injustice and racism, it has been harder for me to understand how monuments to people who fought against slavery and racism could be found worthy of desecration and removal. (The World War II memorial and the statue of Ulysses S. Grant come to mind.)
Memorials to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson provide a chilling case study in how symbols can change. Clearly, such memorials were never erected as a tribute to slavery. Yet, to some, this is what they apparently have become, rather than reminders of the words penned by Jefferson in 1776, “that all men are created equal.”
As activists, and even elected officials, act to hide, disturb or remove what were first seen as symbols of freedom but are now seen by some as symbols of injustice, we should not allow all symbols of our national founding and its virtues to become transformed into symbols of hate and prejudice.
As Francis Scott Key was held by the British in Baltimore harbor during the attack on Fort McHenry, he wondered if, once the battle ended, he would see the American flag flying over the fort the next morning. “O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?” I also now wonder if when the smoke from the protests clears, will we still see symbols of freedom, justice and equality in public places throughout our country? Or will the mobs have transformed them all into symbols of prejudice, bigotry and hate, including the flag itself?
As we have recently celebrated the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, it is a good time to reflect upon the principles of the founding of this country and the system of government that makes it possible for people to speak up against their own government in protest, and to change things where necessary.
This country was founded upon certain ideals — ideals that have not altogether been realized, but that we continue to move toward as we work within the system whose principles were expressed in the Declaration of Independence with an architecture provided by the Constitution.
People who cherish these principles should protect the symbols that remind us of the ideals upon which the nation was founded. We should teach our children and remind each other of what they originally stood for so it will not be forgotten, and their meaning will not be changed. There are some monuments that should not be removed. There are some emblems whose meaning should not be transformed.
Steve Densley is an attorney who practices in Salt Lake City.