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The Power and the Glory

  • Bill Dwight poses in front of the Pie Bar sign outside of the bar itself on Thursday August, 10, 2017.



Friday, September 21, 2018

Recently Fox News ran an article about a city council resolution. Not one of ours. Don’t worry. I doubt we rate that level of august scrutiny. No, this resolution was taking Beto O’Rourke to task for his remarks about NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem.

 O’Rourke is running for the US Senate seat currently occupied by Ted Cruz in Texas. He answered a question about his thoughts on the debate. His response was recorded and went viral. Essentially he said that protesting is protected speech, and that he understood and sympathized with the position that Colin Kaepernick and others are demonstrating.

This was in the Texas community of Reno, and the councilors there were reacting to their perceived gist of candidate O’Rourke’s remarks. They averred that the flag and the national anthem represent the sacrifices made by Americans to preserve our freedoms and democracy. They further asserted that there is only one proper way to honor those men and women, and that is by standing facing the flag, hand over heart for the duration of the entire song. Kneeling, to the Reno City Council, is an egregious affront to our service members. The resolution passed.

I don’t doubt for an instant that there are service members and veterans who are genuinely offended by the protest. Just as I know that there are people who believe the flag does not equally stand for all the people in the land and the institutions it is supposed to represent.

Let’s be clear, though. This is not a fight about a colored fabric or a difficult song to sing. It never has been. It’s a struggle over primacy, over whose ideals and principles will rule the day. The flag, the anthem, even the color scheme of red, white and blue are symbols that are imbued with significance by whomever wants to reduce their views through a semiotic shorthand. Colin Kaepernick subscribes to those terms, as well, because his equally symbolic gesture is designed to serve as a counterpoint to the argument he believes the flag and anthem stand for. Except, he’s not protesting the people who are in the armed forces: He is expressing his outrage towards the notion that the flag represents equality and justice.

I remember when a more modest flag fight occurred here in Northampton. It was years ago, and I was a fairly green city councilor. Local middle school students were concerned that Northampton didn’t have a flag, so they worked together to design one. They came up with a standard that featured a blue representation of the Connecticut River on a field of green. It was an excellent class exercise that prompted students to think about what their home meant to them and how they would want to project that message. They were rightfully proud of their design and decided to offer their flag to the city to serve as its banner in the Hall of Flags in the State House.

However, Northampton actually already had a flag. It wasn’t flying anywhere and no one knew where one might have been, but we had one. It was essentially the city seal on a field of white. And being Northampton, we had a fight about which flag should prevail. It was big news for months, a conflict fraught with raw emotions and outrage. And, of course, ultimately it had little to do with the actual flags, but rather with the meaning folks invested each flag with. Mind you, neither of these flags had held any significance for anyone a year before.

And being Northampton, we decided to accept both flags as our city flag. Neither one of which you can see flying anywhere today.

We moved on.

Similarly, the great Northampton downtown crosswalk debate excited intense emotion. Not all that long ago, a citizen suggested that the city paint the crosswalk on Main St. in front of Thorne’s in the colors of the rainbow flag to correspond with the Pride March. I won’t rehash the debate that ensued and the process by which a “policy” was developed because there isn’t the column space available, but the arguments were rarely straightforward (no pun intended). Safety, esthetics, money, and fairness (what if Nazis wanted to paint a crosswalk with swastikas?) were all concerns expressed in opposition. But I always felt that the visceral resistance to the idea had little to do with those stated concerns and much to do with the perception that the LGBTQ community was planting their flag in the center of town — literally and figuratively.

The rainbow flag is a declaration of hope for inclusion and equality, just as the American flag was once an aspirational emblem of justice and freedom — not a jingoistic cudgel employed to demand fealty and to assert dominance and supremacy.

Symbols are ambiguous Rorschach blots loaded with arbitrary meaning. But they are worthless if you want to negotiate a solution to a conflict. Symbols tend to reinforce divisions. They rarely promote meaningful discussions. No. In order to engage and resolve conflicts in a way that does not diminish someone, you have to actually talk with people on equal and clear terms.

And then you can move on.

Bill Dwight is a Northampton city councilor and a pie wrangler at the Florence Pie Bar.