|WHEN SYMBOLS CLASH
Should America re-evaluate its civic symbols?
December 10, 1997
in this forum:
Should we avoid using people as civic symbols? Should we treat school names differently? How do other countries deal with controversial symbols? Should we consider some figures in American history sacred? Should a community be allowed to choose its own symbols? Additional comments and questions. Are national symbols important? Should we allow individual communities to pick their own civic symbols? What then happens when one group picks a figure that is offensive to another?
Clarence Page responds:It happens all the time. Look at the hoop-la that is raised over Confederate flags. These conflicts are inevitable in a diverse society. How well we deal with the sensibilities of our fellow Americans is a measure of our social maturity as a country. So far, despite our occasional disputes, we're doing better than Bosnia, Northern Ireland, the Middle East, etc.
Professor Sean Wilentz responds:Regarding the first question: National symbols are certainly important, since they help us visualize a sense of common civic connection. And some of these national symbols are replicated in every city, town, village, and hamlet around the country (if only with the American flag outside each post office).
As for the second two questions, a lot depends on what you mean by "individual communities," which is an ambiguous term. If you mean that, for example, the state of Georgia ought to continue to include elements of the Confederate battle flag in its state flag (even if a majority of Georgians favored the inclusion), I would say no -- because the offensiveness of emblem of slavery and treason overrides whatever element of "Southern heritage" is being honored.
But if local schools want to honor some local hero instead of Washington or Jefferson or whoever, I won't object -- just as I wouldn't object if the likes of Washington or Jefferson WERE honored, even if they were slaveholders. As I said earlier, it's much more important to see that students are learning about history inside the schools than to get too worked up about the names of the schools -- significant as those names might be.