Symbols Matter

We’ve witnessed two spectacles in the last week that demonstrate that, for whatever reason, symbols are really important to us as human beings.

The Royal Family

Crowds fill the Mall outside Buckingham Palace after the wedding ceremony of Prince William to Kate. Courtesy of the Royal Family's Flickr page.

On Friday, April 29, something like 2 billion people around the globe tuned in to watch Prince William, the grandson of Queen Elizabeth II, marry Catherine “Kate” Middleton.  While an important day in the lives of these two lovebirds, it was also obviously much more than that.  It was a chance for the countries for whom the Queen is Sovereign – particularly the English portion of the United Kingdom – to celebrate themselves.  It was remarkable (and dare I say, inspiring?) to see the mall outside Buckingham Palace filled with thousands of people waving flags, wearing their national colors, and cheering as the Royal Family made their balcony appearance.

I know there are a lot of people, particularly in the United States but also throughout the world (even in the United Kingdom), who find the idea of the monarchy to be an anachronism at best and perhaps even undemocratic.  But, as Daniel Hannan, Conservative Member of the European Parliament for South East England, points out, there is an overwhelming argument in favor of it:  “the clear preference of most British people is for the current system.”  Isn’t the primary virtue of democracy that the people’s will be done?  If so, then the Monarchy, within the democratic system that ultimately gave birth to our own in the United States, is the will of the British people.

It’s important to note that the role of the Monarchy has evolved significantly over the almost 1,000 years since William the Conqueror defeated Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.  From the moment William established his dominance over the English, he reigned supreme.  His word was the law.  There was no legislature and the people had no voice.  This is far from being the case today.  No longer is the Queen (or King) the Head of Government; instead, her role is limited to being the Head of State.*  Governmental power is vested in a legislature which is chosen by a vote of the people.  That body chooses a Prime Minister who, along with his cabinet, have been granted the executive power.  While the Queen’s power is thus significantly reduced, the outpouring of affection from her subjects and the stability the family has brought to these nations can’t be overstated.

The Death of Osama bin Laden

The second symbol to make its mark on the world recently was the death of Osama bin Laden.  On the one hand, the mastermind of a number of terrorist attacks, the most infamous being the attacks of September 11, 2001, had served as a symbol to freedom-loving people everywhere of the evil that exists in the world.  On the other, to those who have adopted a violent and repugnant version of Islam, bin Laden served as a symbol that it was possible to wound the Great Satan.

When the American military, as authorized by President Obama, took action based on intelligence gathered over the last ten years, it not only killed the titular head of the world’s most feared terrorist network, it eliminated a symbol of strength and resistance to his followers.  Because it was the American military who succeeded in this mission, a new symbol arose: a symbol of America’s commitment to fight back against those who would attack us without provocation and, no matter how long it takes, bring them to justice (or, in this case, bring justice to them).  It will also, no doubt, serve as a symbol in President Obama’s re-election campaign of his leadership and national security credentials.  And, it has served as a symbol of how American’s perceive the relative success of the War on Terror:

A new SurveyUSA poll conducted yesterday finds that 60% of Americans say the United States is winning the war on terror, compared to 18% who say the terrorists are winning.

The identical question in August 2006 found that just 41% said the United States was winning, while 45% said the terrorists were winning.

Symbols Matter

We have a lot of other symbols in our lives that help to serve as a rallying point or a shortcut in communicating allegiances and preferences.  Any football fan knows instantly that the guy wearing a blue-and-white star on a silver background is a devotee of America’s Team, the Dallas Cowboys.  The navy blue pinstripes on a white uniform and the white interlocking NY on a navy blue cap proclaim allegiance to the hated New York Yankees.  Extending the index finger and the pinky finger while bringing the thumb, the second, and the third finger together instantly identifies you as a Texas Longhorn fan…unless they’re held upside down.  Then, you’re a proud fan of the Oklahoma Sooners.

For the Christian world, there is no symbol more powerful than a simple cross.  For Judaism, the Star of David and the menorah.  The Star and Crescent have come to be identified with Islam.  Burning of any of the Holy Scriptures has become a symbol of hatred and intolerance.  For nations, the flag is often the most recognizable symbol.

Whether big or small, it is clear that symbols matter.  They shouldn’t be confused with the thing itself: the American flag isn’t America, the cross isn’t Christ, the Queen isn’t England, and Osama bin Laden isn’t al Qaeda.  But they are often powerful representations of whatever it symbolizes.  And, for whatever reason, the human psyche holds fast to these symbols.  So, instead of fighting itand  complaining about the extravagance of the Royal Wedding or the celebrations over the death of another human, as repugnant as he was, I’m going to spend a little time reflecting on what these things symbolize.  Probably while wearing a ballcap with a blue-and-white star on it.

*By comparison, in the United States, we have combined these two roles in our President.

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