Remember S.I. Hayakawa?
I didn’t think so.
Back in the 1960s, Hayakawa was acting president of an institution called, at the time, San Francisco State College. (It has since evolved into a research university.)
A temper tantrum on
a sound truck
Hayakawa briefly made it into the national headlines, and onto network TV news, when he climbed to the top of a sound truck and ripped out the loudspeaker wires while the truck was amplifying black liberation messages on his campus. To be fair to Hayakawa, he was trying to keep the college open while the people responsible for the sound truck wanted it to shut down. But Hayakawa, of all people, should have understood the symbolic impact of his act.
I imagine that the handful of individuals who knew what Hayakawa had achieved in academia before the San Francisco State incident, and who also respected the ultimate aims of the black liberation movement, felt shocked and mortified. It was as if Dr. Jekyll had suddenly turned into Mr. Hyde. Almost equally bad, when he appeared on television to explain himself, he came off as a kind of well-meaning but wimpy putz. If you have the time to spare you can see it here:
Prior to that incident, Hayakawa was known as an academic who taught a form of thinking that should, if anything, have prevented his tantrum on a sound truck. So it was disappointing, to say the least, that Hayakawa had briefly morphed into an out-of-control bully — resorting to a kind of vandalism to show his displeasure with people who were advocating a point-of-view in a manner that he felt was inappropriate.
But let’s go way back to a little over a decade before that. And yes, yes, this ultimately has to do with with Colin Kaepernick and other athletes taking a knee during the Star Spangled Banner, and with Donald Trump harassing them for it. Just bear with me for a while.
Logic, as you surely know if you took either the kind of college course for humanities majors that is generally nicknamed “Moron Math,” or perhaps a very elementary philosophy course, is kind of a mashup between philosophy and mathematics. It is designed so you can diagram and presumably straighten out screwed up reasoning like this:
Are all redheads plumbers?
“Joe is a redhead. Joe is a plumber. Therefore all redheads are plumbers.” Or, with equally erroneous thinking, some numbskull might conclude that all plumbers are redheads.
Various exercises, done with overlapping, partially overlapping, and completely separated circles helped students diagram both erroneous and logical thought processes. Their use is to help people avoid jumping to nonsensical conclusions from insufficient data.
Early in the 20th Century a Polish-American scholar named Alfred Korzaybski, began expanding our understanding of how false conclusions get made. I don’t pretend to be a student of Korzybski or even to be able to follow him much of the time. However, he spawned an academic discipline called General Semantics. It was S.I. Hayakawa who explained Korzybski's theories in a book dumbed down enough so that even the incipiently cranky 17-years-old college student that I was in 1956 was could get it.
The book was called Language In Thought And Action. It was required reading in my college freshman English course, in part, I suspect, because the head of my college’s English Department, a man named Basil Pillard, was one of Hayakawa’s collaborators.
Whoopee! Here comes
a sex fetish!
One of the principles that the book taught was how to differentiate between things and symbols, which are abstractions, of things. Take one of the ultimate abstractions — the sexual fetish. At the time, one could find, say in New York’s Times Square, book stores that sold pornography and sex fetishes under the counter.
Sex fetishes? They might have included a shiny patent leather woman’s shoe (just one) with a very high heel. You couldn’t have sex with it, at least not as most of us understand sex. It had no erogenous parts. It had no warmth. It had no voice. It had no brain. It had no tenderness. It had no passion. It had no moving parts.
And yet creepy little men would buy it and take it home to kiss, lick, suck and whatever else, all in the course of masturbation. For them, that shiny high heeled shoe wasn’t a shoe. It was sex itself. It may have begun as a symbol of a sexy woman in high heeled shoes, but somehow it had morphed, in the minds of the fetishists, from a symbol into the real thing.
The Bible backs me
up on this, if you care
Fetishising symbols is a practice that goes back at least to biblical times, and that gave rise to one of the Ten Commandments, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them…”
So idol worshipping is just another form of masturbating while sucking on the heel of a patent leather shoe. It is a demonstration of people confusing the symbol of God with the real thing, assuming you believe there is a God.
Hold all that for a moment and tell me — or tell yourself — what the American flag is.
Basically, it’s a piece of cloth consisting either of other pieces of red, white and blue cloth, sewn together in a certain manner, or it is a piece of cloth with a certain number of red white and blue stars and stripes printed on it. Most people would recognize either form as “the American flag.” But it’s still just a piece of cloth.
The American flag is also a legitimate symbol of the United States and of American liberty. But that is all it is, a symbol. Some people, Donald Trump among them, have confused the symbol with the thing, same as ancient idol worshippers, and same as creeps masturbating over a woman’s shoe.
You cannot burn up or burn down the United States of America by setting fire to a flag, because the flag is only a symbol, not the real thing. You cannot destroy freedom by failing to salute the flag in a prescribed way, for the same reason.
Similarly, you cannot destroy the United States of America by refusing to stand with your hand on your heart when the Star Spangled Banner is played. Our national anthem is another symbol. Or rather, it is a song celebrating a symbol.
Maybe "taking a knee"
is a form of respect
As for saluting the flag in a manner that Donald Trump favors, consider this. In a more authoritarian state than perhaps even Donald Trump has envisioned, we might all be ordered to get down on one or both knees as a symbol of respect, just as some people do while praying. It certainly seems to be more humble and respectful than standing while feeling for our own heartbeats.
By insisting on taking a knee Colin Kaepernick and other football players are not, as Trump insists, disrespecting the flag They are instead disrespecting the perverted fetishization of the flag by people whose behavior is opposite what the flag stands for — liberty and justice for all. The football players are saying that freedom and justice fail to exist when people are shot dead by a police officer for driving, walking, standing, or merely breathing while black.
It is Trump who disrespects America, and the American ideal, by insisting not only on flag worship, but also flag worship according to the specific ritual he fetishizes.
In doing so, he has committed almost precisely the same perversion as the biblical idol worshipper and the pervert who sits behind locked doors sucking on a stiletto-heeled shoe. Or, for that matter, a pervert who allegedly pays hookers to pee on him. He has gotten his own wires crossed, and confused a symbol of a thing with the thing itself.
If this is a free nation, anyone who so wishes may take a knee, most especially when the knee is taken in protest. The right to protest is precisely what the flag is all about.