“Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag — if they do, there must be consequences — perhaps loss of citizenship or a year in jail.”
Tweet by President Donald Trump
Last year when my child was in fifth grade the Daughters of the American Revolution sponsored a lesson and essay contest titled What the Flag of the United States Means to Me. He also received a paper booklet named The Flag Code which states the directions for displaying and respecting the flag.
The essay was a required assignment. He wrote his essay without any help. I had no idea what he would write as I had never had a conversation with my kid about the flag; nor do we have a flag flying in our home. He received an A- grade; and on the paper his teacher wrote, “great insight” and “nicely written”. I had to laugh. Part of his essay reads:
“The flag of the USA determines the power in this country. It shows 50 individual, powerful determined states, ready to make a change. It shows 50 categories of inspiring people, ready for anything that comes at them, in the present or in the future, no matter what the sacrifices are. It shows how powerful a country could be. How strong people could be if they work together until the end. It shows that no matter your color, race, or gender, you can come here.”
This assignment has elements of propaganda and hypocrisy. The education and promotion of our flag without any kind of contextual or historical lesson is simplistic, uncritical and insincere. It forwards the idea that flying the flag unto itself is an act: an act of patriotism, an act of obligation, or an act of freedom. And, not doing so is an act of disregard, disobedience, and reproach. The politics of flying the flag has been reduced to the “you are either with us or against” binary which is typical of western thinking.
Lots of flags were flown in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. One could easily argue that doing so was nothing more than a meaningless, empty, gesture.
What is the Purpose of a National Flag?
A national flag is the flag that symbolizes a country and its citizens. It has its origins as a field sign in battle, or as a military standard representing a principality, suzerainty, or dynasty. Outside of warfare the flag became common in the age of sail, as a maritime flag indicating the provenance of the ship. It was during the modern era (1500 B.C.E. to 1800 C.E.) when nation-state boundaries were being drawn that flags were adopted in a civilian and cultural context. The American flag and colors comes from the ensign of the Continental Navy of the North American Colonies.
Simply stated, the purpose of a national flag is to identify national identities. It is a global sign. Kind of like the “Stop” sign or the “Olympic Rings”.
Our nation’s flag protection movement began in 1897 with the adoption of Flag Desecration Statutes. This movement began as reaction to perceived commercial and political misuse of the flag.
By 1907 flag desecration laws were promulgated in every state. And in 1942 President Roosevelt approved the “Federal Flag Code” which was when the Pledge of Allegiance was adopted as well. The contentious debate as to whether or not flag defacement and irreverence is an expression of free speech began in earnest during the Vietnam War and ended in the 1990’s when the The Supreme Court ruled twice that destruction of the American flag is protected by the Constitution, specifically the First Amendment’s protection of free speech.
Clearly for our current president, the act of defacing our national flag is unsettling. But only in some contexts and unless you are one of his supporters. Then it is an act of patriotism.