Symbols

Israel, and Italy’s Jewish community, were angry when the Israeli flag was burned during April 25th Liberation Day festivities in Milan. The burners were Italian extreme leftists, who tend to be very pro-Palestine and anti-Israel.

Coincidentally, about the same time I received from a reader a reference to Michelle Malkin (a conservative blogger) about an incident during the immigration protests in the US, in which the Mexican flag was hoisted above an upside-down American one at an Amerian high school. Red-blooded American patriots muttered about a Mexican invasion, and protested the insult to the Stars & Stripes.

During Italy’s spring elections, there were at least three incidents of atheist voters protesting at having to vote in classrooms which contained crucifixes. Schools are used as polling stations, and many classrooms, even in public schools, contain crucifixes (that’s a whole ‘nother controversy).

Side note: Italian schools are closed on polling days. I don’t know why they can’t just use the school gym like Americans do – which would keep the kids in school, and also solve the crucifix problem: I don’t think there are crucifixes in the gyms.

The three voter protests had different outcomes. In one, the poll supervisor had the crucifix temporarily removed, over vociferous protests from right-wing party observers present and the local mayor; the case went to court, and the court backed the decision to remove the crucifix on constitutional grounds.

In another case, the polling supervisor refused to remove the crucifix. The voter called the police to register a formal complaint at being “unable to vote” in the presence of the crucifix. The police intervened and forcibly removed the cross, protecting the legal rights of the citizen over the objections of the polling officials.

All of these incidents – and the Danish cartoon mess – strike me as examples of people getting rather too worked up about symbols. What are these objects, really? Pieces of cloth or wood or even plastic, held to represent something larger because they happen to be molded into the shape of a man on a cross, or sewn with a certain pattern of stripes, stars, etc. When you endow such an object with so much symbolic weight, you’re simply giving others the leverage to hurt you – symbolically.

To give an object that much importance – isn’t that idolatry? On the other hand, if you feel that you have to make a strident point of objecting to the mere presence of the object, then you, too, are acknowledging its symbolic power. Why would a self-proclaimed atheist give so much to a plastic Jesus?

Yes, symbolic acts can be hurtful, and are usually intended to be. If you were ever teased as a child, you know how much “mere” words can hurt. But we should all be grown up enough to realize that what others say about us (or our beliefs and symbols) really doesn’t matter. Any truly strong nation or person or belief (or lack of belief) should have the moral strength and maturity to shrug off attacks on (or by) mere symbols.

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