Opinion » Bill Cope

The Big Empty

On what do we stand in a land of illusions?

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Could it be a matter of having too many symbols, here in what passes for America? Understand, I'm not insisting this is definitely the cause of all our turmoil, but it's worth thinking about: that maybe our national zeitgeist has become so cluttered with symbols—simplistic representations of otherwise complex concepts—certain Americans have confused the simple with the complex.

Take emoticons. Is it so impossible to imagine—in this atmosphere where, as it often seems, there is more online, pretend contact going on between human beings than actual, personal connections—that among our Facebook/Snapchat/Twitter friends are people who see that little head creature with the tears of mirth squirting from its eyes tagged to a social media post, and are thereby convinced the content is really that damn funny?

Emoticons, of course, are symbols of the most trivial nature, and I would never imply you are silly enough to mistake an emoji for an authentic emotion. Clearly, you are much too sophisticated to wallow in the shallowest of our cultural puddles. But this is not exactly the Age of Big Brains, right? Not with Alex Jones on the radio, Steve Bannon posing as an intellectual and you-know-what in the White House.

I bring it up because so often, the most irresolvable social conflicts arise over the dichotomy between the reality of a matter, and the symbol meant to represent that matter. Real patriotism, say, as opposed to the symbols of patriotism. While Colin Kaepernick and friends feel compelled to act, as innocuous as taking a knee may be, and add their voices against the real injustices happening to real Americans, their detractors hang their loyalties on the flag and the song, those scraps of Americana that are meaningless if taken separately from the people they represent.

Or monuments to Confederate leaders: We see by now how many of our citizens are content with heroically-posed, mythologized figures of bronze and granite, unwilling to acknowledge the traitors, slavers and murderous terrorists historical accuracy has proven those figures to be.

Then there's the noise over the proper place to display Ten Commandments monuments. This is of particular interest to followers of Roy Moore, that Alabamian who has been in the news for both his professed piety—according to him—and his (alleged) proclivity for teenage girls—according to (at least) nine ex-teenage girls who have come forward with multiple allegations of his sexual predation. But before the allegations, before his campaign to plant himself in the Senate chair left open with Jeff Sessions' appointment to U.S. Attorney General, we knew of Roy Moore for his insistence that we mere humans mustn't conduct legal proceedings without God being present in the courtroom, as embodied in a copy of His commandments.

While a circuit judge in the early Nineties, Moore hung a wooden plaque behind the bench, refusing to remove it in spite of being directed to by the federal judiciary. Later, as an Alabama Supreme Court judge, he had a 2 1/2-ton granite T.C. monument installed in the rotunda of the state building in which he worked. Twice, he was removed from the Alabama high court for refusing to comply with the law of the land—the law he was sworn to uphold.

In short, for over two decades, Moore has used the issue of the monument—a symbol, I remind you, of something in actuality much less tangible and much more equivocal than a granite block—to flaunt his (alleged) righteousness. He has lost every challenge in his mission to blend church and state into one sloppy mess of theocracy. But in the end, he got exactly what he wanted: the perception—at least among many less-than-alert minds in Alabama—that he is not only a moral man, but one qualified to tell others what is moral, and what is not. Without those efforts of Roy Moore to force a symbolic religious bias into real-consequence secular proceedings, there would be no Roy Moore for Senate campaign. To his supporters, his advocacy for a token of morality has become more a measure of his character than his actual moral history, no matter how many women come forth with stories of child molestation and assault.

Point is, for many Americans, the symbols have become more relevant than what is being symbolized. It would explain a great deal, wouldn't it? ... like, how Evangelicals could continue to support not just a probable pedophile for a Senate seat, but to an even greater degree, how a man of the most advanced depravity could have gotten their votes for the highest office.

To hold the loyalties of this alarmingly stunted demographic, Trump needs only to perform an endless, exaggerated caricature of an actual presidency—to seem to be saying president-y things and taking president-y steps. He needs only to symbolize a presidential function, and that's enough for them. The more foolishly and recklessly he behaves, the more satisfied they are he's doing his job. He is a pouting, posturing, contorted-face emoji of leadership—the only sort of leadership the Religious Right seems capable of understanding.

But I guess it was inevitable. Had they ever been smart enough to see through an operator like Trump, they probably would never have become the Religious Right to start with.