What is it about symbols that get Americans so worked up? When it comes to removing a flag or taking down a statue some people might cry political correctness! while others point out that often it’s only the meaning attached to them that has been misconstrued. If only we understood the stories better, added a little context, and stopped assuming their institutional appearances weren’t purposeful, and weren’t themselves a form of propaganda. But alas, it seems only here, in the land founded on the concept of separating church and state, that the state and every one of its institutions, real or imagined, now seems to require a religious level of devotion.
But history is being constantly rewritten, its new stories dreamed up as fantasies by those in control. So as the legends and symbols of the Confederacy tend to leave out the part about treason, and the story of Columbus forgets to mention that he never actually reached India (and certainly wasn’t acting on behalf of the Italians), those trying to control the storytelling blame political correctness for raining on their parades. However, instead of claiming they are defying the dreaded political correctness, maybe we should say what they are really doing: defying historical correctness.
In his latest piece, Chris Adams takes us down to Texas, where everything, including institutional devotion, is bigger. “The fine line between religion and culture tends to get walked on hard whenever we form institutions. It’s a mashup of identity and the need to feel like you’re part of something bigger than yourself. Companies, families, and all sorts of communities and organizations in America now seem to require religious belief. So when it comes to universities, their students and their alumni, there is no more perfect example of that kind of true devotion like the devotion to Texas A&M University.”
Besides having a campus life surrounded by an unrivaled number of statues, symbols, and rituals handed down through generations of Texans, they essentially pray to the gods of Aggie-ism; something that is hard to understand if you’re not part of it. Adams explains, “No school is more ritualized than Texas A&M. In Aggieland, legends and customs are attached to everything from the school ring to the bonfire before the annual football game against the University of Texas at Austin. One of the enduring goals of the university is to pass the Aggie experience on unchanged from generation to generation.” Pride is something most of us can relate to, but it seems like in America a line tends to get crossed and we end up making a religion out of everything; sports teams, bands, political parties. We worship them. But some things shouldn’t be worshiped or memorialized. There’s no reason to celebrate some of these figures who did no more than destroy culture in the first place.
In Philadelphia people still pose with the statue of Rocky Balboa and elsewhere in America people argue over keeping Columbus Day a legal holiday. Celebrating a fictional boxer whose movie franchise went on for far too long (and then even sparked a painful spin-off) makes just as much sense as celebrating the guy who came to North America thinking he was in India. Rocky, through his screen presence, merely symbolizes the underdog spirit of that city, as Columbus now symbolizes the bravery of the lost explorer in a new land, or at least a well placed school holiday. However, both stories are equally fictional.
Worship and faith are something that create important communal bonds in society. Religion has intense affects on our culture, both good and bad. But you don’t always have to drink the Kool-Aid, not everyone is a prophet and not everything should be treated like prophecy. Just take a look at Penn State. Or the entire Catholic Church for that matter. But as the Aggies themselves say, “From the outside looking in, you can’t understand it. And from the inside looking out, you can’t explain it.”
What we choose to memorialize reflects what we actually value. If we tell the story of monuments as if they are innocent representations of our past, without consideration of the historical context and what they actually represent, we’re not separating fact from fiction, let alone church from state. So however you choose to express devotion, whether painting your face three days before the big game, leaving pennies on a confederate statue before an exam, or dropping out of school to follow the Grateful Dead, you’re drinking someone else’s Kool-Aid, which now comes in many different flavors.
Not everyone can be a prophet, but in the history of rock n’ roll there certainly was one person perceived as one. Jerry Garcia. And no fans were ever as devoted as they were devoted to Jerry. Grateful Dead fans often gave up their lives (to the point of dropping out of college or quitting their jobs), packed up camp, and went wherever the band went. They lived in their vans and shared religious experience upon religious experience through the live shows and the ecosystem fans created around them. They traded bootleg tapes and created a new family; their chosen family of fellow Deadheads. One might say that in that crowd there was never enough Kool-Aid to go around.
It’s hard to think of another jam band that had such cross-generational, monumental impact on the American counterculture as The Grateful Dead, although many have tried. From Dave Matthews Band to Phish, no one has been able to fully pull off building a worshipping, new society than them, even if accidentally. And no other performance encapsulated the ethos of the Dead than the performance of Dark Star at the Fillmore East in 1970. A psychedelic roar of sound erupted during the 25+ minute performance of Dark Star that filled the iconic venue with some of the most abstract trippiest improvised sounds Jerry had ever achieved.
The audience was mystified. In the middle of the song, even the band went on a trip. And if you’re wondering if we mean that kind of trip, we sure do. They sort of drifted off for at least a good three minutes and when they came to, bafflingly picked up on the exact note they left off on. The crowd didn’t care, because unsurprisingly, they were taking the same fantastic trip as the band. It was the Dead, man! It's renowned as the key performance of the song. They froze time and in that moment everyone became one. You could argue that The Dead never topped the improvisational genius of that one performance, but spent the next three decades attempting to. Though, we would advise you, please don’t ever say that to a Deadhead, for your own sake.