Malcolm Pollack and I got into a debate on Twitter—which is the absolute worst forum on which to have anything approaching a substantive discussion—about flag-burning.
Malcolm had retweeted the following:
I responded with what I thought was a sympathetic tweet:
I was basically saying that it's symbol-minded (in the Carlinian sense of "simple-minded") to burn the flag, just as it's symbol-minded to fetishize the flag. Malcolm apparently took exception this, so he responded:
@bighominid Symbols are not nothing.— Malcolm Pollack (@mtpollack) November 13, 2016
Thus began a long and tedious exchange about symbols and offense-taking, during which Malcolm accused me of getting things backward and knowing nothing about symbols, which were a substantial part of my grad-school work. I did my best to remain civil despite the uncalled-for condescension, and swallowed the urge to toss any verbal grenades back. Here's part of the dialogue, near as I can reconstruct it (BH = BigHo; MP = Malcolm P.):
BH: Sad. But as Carlin said: "I leave symbols for the symbol-minded." You're no less symbol-minded if you're burning a symbol. (The tweet that got MP's dander up.)
MP: Symbols are not nothing. (flat declarative)
BH: As a student of religion, I agree. But the power of symbols resides entirely in people; their power isn't engraved in the cosmos. (still trying to be civil, but sensing what's coming)
MP: So does everything else of interest about people. (first snarky salvo—reduce my utterance to meaninglessness by claiming it applies to everything)
BH: My point is: we shouldn't fetishize symbols. Attachment is what leads to the fury we're seeing. Let that go, and voilà: peace. (still doing my best to remain civilly focused on discussion)
MP: Human symbols aren't fetishes. They are compressed algorithms. (Malcolm loses me here. I have no clue what this even means, but he's talking from his tech background, so I suppose we're now going to spend the rest of the discussion speaking in two different languages.)
BH: But people *can* fetishize symbols. And once they're fetishized, people will fight over them or try to destroy them. (This seems self-evident to me.)
MP: Sure, anything can be fetishized. Point was that the original remark seemed too dismissive of something essential & universal. ("Anything can be fetishized"—again with the "dismissiveness" debate tactic. I'm happy to grant his point about my dismissiveness, though. He's got me there, but I'm not particularly ashamed of my attitude.)
BH: I'm not a flag-burner, and I don't like the act, but I think it's a type of free expression. There's the subtext for my tweet.
MP: It's a risky one. You think you are just burning the finger, but for many people you are burning the moon. (This is good, and it agrees with my point. Stop—right—there.)
BH: That's my point about fetishization and attachment. Burning a flag doesn't actually burn liberty. (I voice aloud what I'm thinking.)
MP: I'm starting to think you really don't understand how symbols work. (This is just fucking insulting. At this point, I really should have broken off the discussion. But I stupidly continued...)
BH: Symbols were a big part of grad school, but you & I may be talking past each other if you see things only thru a tech background. (Still—STILL—trying to be civil. And bringing up the "two languages" problem I mentioned parenthetically earlier.)
MP: Put it this way: obviously what you are burning is just cloth. But why burn THAT piece of clothing? Why not your socks?
BH: A symbol points beyond itself to a thing, but when we confuse the symbol for the thing, we're attached/fetishizing/cathecting/etc (didn't have room for a period)
MP: Everybody understands this. [It's] why the burners burn flags and not socks, and it's why it makes the patriots angry. (A third time being dismissive: "Everybody understands this.")
BH: Because both sides are attached. My original point.
MP: Which is how symbols work. Which is my point. Carlin can mock that all [he wants], but he's being stupid. (It's almost as if we're agreeing but refusing to admit we're agreeing.)
MP again: It's how humans are wired up, and very deeply so, even if it seems silly. (Which it isn't at all, I think.)
BH: Am trying to articulate the Buddhist perspective here. [Buddhists] don't have anything backward, IMO, & they've got the psych right.
MP: So next time you walk into a biker bar and start burning a flag, you can explain about articulating the Buddhist perspective. (Yet more fucking snark. What's the goddamn point of trying to have a respectful discussion if my interlocutor's going to shit on me? And despite it all, I'm STILL trying to be civil.)
BH: Won't be me who does that. But yeah, it'll still be attachment at work. That truth doesn't change.
MP: The point is the gesture. It is intended to be deliberately offensive *against the thing symbolized*. And everyone knows it. (OK, so "the thing symbolized" is an idea of America, right? Or is it America, concretely, whatever that means? The land? 325 million people? All of these things are either too big or too abstract to be insulted.)
BH: Really gotta go to lunch, but: if you saw someone burning a flag, would you go all Jack Bauer on him? (Obviously, I'm trying to get Malcolm to commit to a particular position. He's not stupid, though; he senses what I'm going for. I'm asking if Malcolm himself is willing to use violence to suppress another's free expression because he finds it personally offensive.)
MP: I would understand that his intention was to deliberately insult and provoke me. The symbol itself cancels out of the equation. (This is a dodge.)
BH: But would you physically attack the flag-burner as a response to his insult?
MP: It would depend on how I felt about people insulting the country. I'd be tempted.
MP again: As for me personally, I've been trained to have a pretty high threshold for physical violence. (I guess that's an honest answer, but it's weaselly. Given Malcolm's come-on-strong tone during this discussion, to the point where he feels free to insult me and act dismissive about the points I'm making, why not have the balls to come right out and say, "I'd kick the ass of every flag-burner I saw in front of me"? Why should there be a judgment call at all—an "it would depend"? Just go to war on all flag-burners, because I guarantee that someone, somewhere, is burning a US flag right at this moment.)
MP continues: Go into a bar and say to Bubba: "This [beer mug] is your sister." Then put your [dick in the] mug. The symbol cancels out. (In life, you choose your battles wisely. Maybe for Malcolm, this is the moment to do battle, but for me, a guy fucking a mug isn't fucking my sister. I'd be more likely to laugh than to deck the offender.)
Anyway, the debate branched off into different threads and spilled over into a short exchange via Direct Message (where you can write up to 5000 characters). But I think you get the idea.
Malcolm has a techie's understanding of what a symbol is, and he's using it, along with a very mechanistic view of human beings, to suggest we're hard-wired into the offender/offended dynamic, as if these were the only choices available to us. By the end of the discussion, Malcolm is sick of symbols and is declaring them irrelevant to what he's really trying to say, which to me sounds like, "People are hard-wired to act like children." That's trivially true, if I may be as dismissive as Malcolm repeatedly was. And that's the point I was trying—and failing—to make about the Buddhist angle: there are other options available than automatically switching to combat mode when someone burns a flag.
If anything, when you react violently to a flag-burner, you're only proving that you're a slave to him—that he controls you and can easily provoke you. As I said above, I see flag-burning as a form of free expression. Burning a flag doesn't literally burn the country down, and if that's how people think, then they're pretty damn stupid. That sort of taking-offense is not actual patriotism: that's Carlin's symbol-mindedness. And if the implication of what I'm saying is that there're lots of stupid people out there, then yeah: you understand me clearly. There are smart ways to be a patriot. Allowing yourself to be goaded into fights isn't one of them.
Malcolm also seems to think that metaphysics goes out the window when it comes to provocations like flag-burning. As he wrote:
MP: The point, again, is that the flag being "just a symbol" doesn't matter. The intent to insult is the point. React how ye will.
And this is the unbridgeable gap between me and Malcolm. From my perspective, metaphysics undergirds everything we do, whether we're able to articulate a metaphysical position or not. Metaphysics is primary. Far from going out the window or "not mattering," it's the very thing that drives us to think and act as we do. I utterly reject Malcolm's position, here.
But hey, if you're so manipulable that all I have to do is burn a cherished symbol in front of you to get a rise out of you, then I pity you.
And with that... I do believe I'm done with Malcolm Pollack. I had thought of him as an intelligent, well-spoken, fascinating gent, someone I'd want to meet eventually, but if he's going to treat me with this level of disrespect, then I want nothing more to do with him. I'm closing comments on this post, unfollowing him on Twitter, and setting up a spam filter to divert any emails to my trash. I wish him good fortune with his future. He's still an excellent blogger, but I'm no longer convinced of his excellence as a person. And that's a shame.