The Border Wall Is a Symbol of Our Symbolic Politics
Excerpt: In the modern age, the people get to choose their own symbols, and they aren’t in a mood to compromise. As we close out 2018 with a partial government shutdown merely adding some extra spice to the monotonous stew of political rage served daily, it’s worth noting that the primary sticking point isn’t an ideological split over border security, nor is it the recalcitrance of the president or the Democrats. It’s about symbolism, for want of a better word. I am in no way trying to minimize the disagreement. We often dismiss controversies or concerns by waving our hands and saying something like, “Oh, that’s merely symbolic,” as if the meaning we give to symbols is somehow irrelevant compared with more tangible things. But symbolism — the way we reduce broad concerns, agendas, and visions to images or rituals — has played a defining role in human life since there have been humans. Try burning a flag or a cross in front of the wrong audience and then tell me symbolism is nothing. The rifts between Shia and Sunni, Eastern Orthodox and Catholic, Israelis and Palestinians, Tibetans and Chinese, obviously have real political, theological, or economic substance behind them, but they are often reduced to symbolism. If you study the history of nationalism, it is often a story of symbols. What flag shall we fly? What icon shall we mount? What books will we revere — or burn?