Well in the newspaper I am reading, with constantly growing surprise, about the US society. Currently there's a 4 page article about kneeling NFL players. Which just leaves me flabbergasted.

What mostly is alien to me is how much value people put into symbols. And trivial symbols for that matter.

Ranging from the "flag" to the "national anthem", why does the US public put such great value into these symbols? Especially compared to other western societies which share the same roots.

I've been taught from a young age already that symbolism is an "old" religious/cultural belief that only leads to people fighting each other over said symbols. And thus forget the actual meaning of what they represent, this is especially important with the rise of the modern religions that put the "thought" above the "symbols".

The people from the US are for a huge part protestants who evacuated from here, and I like to believe that the values of the protestants are ingrained in the early social make up of the us. As we all know from the Great Iconoclasm in the 16th century Protestantism goes even further than traditional Christian beliefs in that iconization is bad.

So this strokes with the current US cultural make up, where people are getting death threats for something as simple as "kneeling during the national anthem". And worse: during something completely irrelevant to the nation as a whole (a sporting match, and not between nations but rather between teams).

What is the historical basis for the US worshipping of icons? And what has deviated them so much from other western societies?

Even weirder: for such a large country with a large number of opinions, why is there no one who stands up and says "The whole iconizations debate just a joke and shouldn't be take serious, let's get back to solving actual problems in the world".

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    Also if you think the US shares all that much with continental Europe in terms of values, you may be in for a shock. pewglobal.org/2011/11/17/… or pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/04/19/… Sep 1, 2018 at 16:56
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    businessinsider.com/weird-things-about-america-europeans-2018-1 is a good article explaining, among other things, that Americans have different views on their flag than the Europeans do of theirs. This isn't an answer because it doesn't explain why, but it at least confirms the observation that probably led to your question.
    – user2565
    Sep 1, 2018 at 17:46
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    @Fizz I'm not talking about the reason why the problems arise, i'm asking about the heavy reaction that occurs at those points. Over here (Netherlands) flag burning, not kneeling, blasphemy etc people would just shrug and continue business as usual. However at an event when someone talked about this he had to be heavily guarded with lots of bodyguards, because he was afraid of us civilian repurcussion, in another country.
    – paul23
    Sep 1, 2018 at 18:08
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    Hello all. Please do not attempt to answer the question in comments, that is not what comments are for. If you feel you can answer this, please do so properly.
    – yannis
    Sep 1, 2018 at 18:35
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    This question seems to be a roundabout way of asking "Why does nationalism exist, and why is the US more nationalist than some, if not all, European countries?"
    – Gramatik
    Jun 13, 2019 at 14:53

3 Answers 3


Just like the OP had been "taught from a young age" that symbols are only good for conflicts and fighting, many Americans, and others around the world, had grown up with symbols that represent the ideals of the American people at large.

The OP mentions that the US is incredibly diverse in terms of opinion. It is also diverse in terms of ethnicity, religion etc. As opposed to simply causing conflict as the OP suggests, symbols have the potential to unite a nation, especially one that was once mainly first and second generation immigrants from around the world. For example, Christopher Columbus Day was created in order to create an American identity for recently arrived Italians. Thanksgiving is nominally about the cooperation between natives and settlers regardless of cultural differences. These days are really just federal holidays and a guaranteed offday from work, but they mean something to many people beyond that.

In addition, it is important to realize that not only Americans have symbols and put faith in them. A maple leaf is the centerpiece of the Canadian flag. UK football/soccer hooligans wear West Ham and Man U. scarves and drunkenly rampage in the streets. Australians have several national symbols such as kangaroos and emus while New Zealanders are named after a native bird, the kiwi.

On a political note, these are all legacies of British colonialism and fairly far from the powderkeg known as Europe, so they all have strong democratic traditions as well as a buffer from externally-led regime change. Hence, there is a strong sense of continuity since the days of George Washington's cherry tree and Cromwell's execution that may understandably be lacking in places like the Fifth Republic of France, which has gone through all five republics since George Washington supposedly cut down that cherry tree.

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    Yet I have not seen any other nationality get angry that I use their flag as toilet paper. While many american students do get angry.
    – paul23
    Jun 13, 2019 at 1:29
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    I think if you used the Quran as toilet paper, you'd get the same reaction from your Muslim students as you get from your American students for doing the same to their flag.
    – nick012000
    Jun 13, 2019 at 5:20
  • @nick012000 well I could ask the same thing about that - "why do muslism make such a big deal of it". What causes them to not see that by putting emphasis on icons they alienate others and thus put themselves in the margins? I know I have only anecdotatl proof, but with my international friends of which majority are german/french and quite a few are US, only the US feel "offended". The others feel "hey that's some weird toilet paper with all kind of flags and symbols (jesus on cross etc) on them", why would you do that?
    – paul23
    Jun 13, 2019 at 15:44
  • @paul23 I am fairly certain that anyone who has a moderate amount of respect for their country would be upset at using their nation's flag as toilet paper. It is simply disrespectful. Why would you go out of your way to participate in such an alienating behavior, rather than use normal toilet paper which is both more readily available, cheaper, and more comfortable than a flag? Obviously, if you choose to willingly inconvenience yourself, there must be some reason for it, and choosing a particular symbol to wipe your behind means you are engaging in symbolism yourself.
    – jpmc26
    Jun 20, 2019 at 19:11

tl;dr You're onto something with your question. The Right got meaner because Christian faith waned, and the result is the "alt-right" (an overused term that's necessary here).

First off, I need to address the concept of Protestant influence on American politics. There is a significant degree of it in our history, but the pieces that remain, in popular culture and specifically within politics, are basically unrecognizable. I say this as someone raised as a fundamentalist Baptist, now apostatized. America is a melting pot, and that component is heavily diluted.

Symbols, icons, idols, etc. are not considered the way you describe. Unless a symbol is explicitly religious, we generally don't consider it an idol. Discussion of idols in churches is mostly limited to private obsessions, like spending too much time at work for the sake of money, or being too attached to material possessions.

Although we don't regularly discuss it directly, nationalism is not odd here, and in fact it's becoming more intense on the Right. That was the contingent that was objecting to the kneeling as disrespectful to the flag and anthem, of course. And this political development coincides with a noticeable weakening of the Religious Right which might have normally tempered the more aggressive aspects of nationalism.

Now, why nationalism? I noticed this mentioned in the other answers as well, but we spend quite a bit of energy building our national identity, and making it the hero and star of a grand story. This is part of how we manage to be a melting pot (or fruit salad, but the melting pot metaphor is more relevant here). Yes, this is helpful to the state in problematic ways, but it's also helpful to the nation as a political entity consisting of all the citizens. We have a large land area inhabited by disparate groups with independent identities, and we need to agree on laws enough to construct and follow them. Having a common identity is vital for this, and we don't want to use race or religion. "Human" is a bit too obvious/redundant to be a meaningful identity, at least until we meet E.T., so nationalism it is.

Why do nationalists get angry when they believe the flag or anthem is disrespected? If only one person is a nationalist, he gets no benefit from being so. To the degree that anyone in the nation is not on board with nationalism, the effect is diminished. National identity is useful only to the extent that it is common. Those who objected to Kaepernick's behavior saw it (I believe) as an indication of insufficient nationalism. Social conventions like this tend to be enforced with shaming, vigilante violence, etc. In this regard, the more abrasive on the Left and Right are in agreement that shaming is a very important tool, not to mention the vigilantes. I don't think most of the people who behave this way think it through like this; it's probably hardwired at the ape level.

Another development that has resulted from the ongoing political shift that elevated Trump is that some people on the Right have become much more outspoken about their opinions, often making them deliberately offensive. I think this lack of inhibitions contributed to the kneeling controversy.

Relevant links:

  • While a "complete" answer, this still doesn't explain why (say) in series you typically see american icons (flags on backgrounds, flagpoles in lawns etc) when they are american made. yet for swedish/german etc series you hardly see any such things.
    – paul23
    Jun 13, 2019 at 23:19
  • @paul23 Shaming about the flag is a thing because nationalism is considered an important virtue. Waving a flag is a way to signal you have that virtue. In sports, we have pep rallies and similar ways of stirring enthusiasm, which is basically a crowd deliberately submitting to psychological manipulation. I think flag waving is a very similar, if calmer and more adult-like, way of doing the same thing.
    – Grault
    Jun 13, 2019 at 23:25
  • @paul23 Also see the links I added at the end.
    – Grault
    Jun 13, 2019 at 23:26
  • Well the links are a real "american centralist" point of view - But each country is influenced by its neighbours, and it (still) doesn't explain to me why in the US you see it happening in everyday life. Yet here it's almost never shown in public (apart from when the national team plays, there is even a thing called "keep nationalism out of sports" for the olympics etc).
    – paul23
    Jun 13, 2019 at 23:38
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    @paul23 I'm not sure what you mean about a country's neighbors. I just checked your profile to see you're in the Netherlands. Based on your own reaction to the idea of nationalism, and what I know of German opinion on it after World War 2, that's probably the root of the difference. America has had almost no negative reinforcement against indulging in nationalism, and plenty of positive. Or at least that's how the grand story goes. Our mistakes are known but not dwelt on.
    – Grault
    Jun 13, 2019 at 23:43

The "kneeling" by N.F.L. players is not a new phenomenon within the world of sport.

Jack Johnson, heavyweight champion of the world, a "symbol" of Black power, was convicted of the Mann Act and sent to prison, for un-apologetically having relations with so-called "white" women. Johnson was recently pardoned.

Muhammad Ali refused U.S. Army induction in 1967.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos "Black Power Salute" at the 1968 Olympics.

Outside of sport we have the U.S. publishing the dead bodies of Saddam Hussein's sons, Uday and Qusay. More recently we have video of the death of Muammar Gaddafi. In between the above two, we have the story of Osama bin Laden being "buried" at sea; essentially a mythical account having no public proof capable of being substantiated.

Some symbols, such as the so-called "hieroglyphics" of Ancient Egypt in Africa are purported to have been "deciphered" by Thomas Young and later Champollion, which is also a historically and politically contentious issue.

On an individual level, some hold the U.S. flag dear, as a symbol of their nation which they "love". Some might have been "born in the U.S.A." yet have no "love" for the U.S.A., thus to that population, the U.S. flag flying in the back of a pick up truck is the same symbol as the Confederate States of America flag flying in the back of a pickup truck.


It is incumbent upon the individual to look into a symbol to determine its true political meaning.

Symbolism is a powerful tool of the state. It provides evidence of success in war, defamation of opponents to state power, and mystery.

When symbolism contests state power, the state naturally responds with opposition to such opposing interests.

Symbolism is a powerful tool of the People. It provides a mechanism to communicate in ones own manner to both a specific population who is capable of understanding the message, and to powers that be who want to control any and all messages, that perhaps, the message of the People cannot be co-opted in all cases.

When symbolism contests the power and will of the People, the people respond with "protests", "marches", "kneeling", etc.

The control of symbols, the same as the control of the meanings of words, or, how words are spelled, is similar to alchemy or the mysteries. Not a word need be spoken to convey a message which could be retained in an individuals' sub-conscious mind and be reflected in their human activities for their entire lives. That is one reason the control of claim as to the origin of the Ancient Egyptians is still, and more than likely, will continue to be a major source of contention historically and by result, politically. The Ancient Egyptians left actual records, many in the form of symbols, which occupy more space in museums around the world than any other civilization. Control of defining or proving who the Ancient Egyptians are is equivalent to controlling the sub-conscious of a vast portion of the human population, as the African Ancient Egyptians left actual records, not stories written after the fact, which many subsequent concepts rely on for their ex post facto origins.

It is difficult to put into words the power of the U.S. flag, the Confederate States of America national flag in the U.S. Suffice to say, that they are powerful national symbols which evoke an immediate response from persons. Resisting or protesting the power of such symbolism, and the activities of the people who take actions using such symbols as their shield, provokes a like response from those who have their interest not allowing such symbolism to be challenged, or ignored, directly on the international political stage.

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    I find it diffuclt to see coherence in this response to be fair, but if I understand it correctly you say "it's a tool of the state": Modern day culture teaches us that country is just "one of many" nothing is superior to something else and thus it is silly to put symbols on top of things. Also modern day culture has taught us to be very wary from state influencing opinion thus one would actually oppose any such tool
    – paul23
    Sep 1, 2018 at 19:31
  • @paul23 Symbolism is also a tool of the people, as detailed at the answer. Symbols evoke a response in peoples' sub-conscious. Depictions of symbols of George Washington chopping down a "cherry tree" remain in the individuals' memory, perhaps throughout their entire lives. The symbol of an athlete "kneeling" in protest to state activities can remain in the individuals' and the national conscious of a people for generations, see Frantz Fanon's chapter on the pitfalls of a national consciousness in The Wretched of the Earth. Symbols can be more lasting in peoples' consciousness than words Sep 1, 2018 at 19:41
  • @paul23 "Tool of the state" is accurate, if loaded, but doesn't capture the motivation of the people upset over the kneeling. Americans draw a significant distinction between the nation (We The People) and the state; the flag generally represents the first more than the second. Some of us have prominently expressed disloyalty to the state alongside intense patriotism, and that contrast is one of our most basic ideas.
    – Grault
    Jun 13, 2019 at 20:26
  • @Grault Yet why do they put symbols in place? And why do they get offended when others do not follow suit? A nation (group of people) are just randomly get togethers, worse: they often commit atrocities because as a group there's no repurcusion. (Look at the invasion of vietnam, iraq twice now iran), but also at others like the german third reich or the russian expansion in 1800. How can anyone not understand that being proud of a nation also means you offend others, and thus this should be kept inside. Things like flags on schools is alien to me, and in my opinion terrible. (neutrality)
    – paul23
    Jun 13, 2019 at 20:54
  • @paul23 I'll write an answer shortly.
    – Grault
    Jun 13, 2019 at 20:57

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