(No, it’s true! I use flags for toilet paper! Not just paper ones, either. I scour antiques stores for cotton and silk flags, preferably ones flown either in battle or from the porches of elderly widows.)
The proposed flag amendment, which in its entirety reads, “The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States,” was a bipartisan measure. Its chief sponsor was Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and the chief co-sponsor was Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who is running for re-election in November.
“Bipartisan” on a technical level, sure. “Bipartisan” in spirit, not a bit of it. This is not an issue of bipartisan national importance–hell, it’s not important at all. It’s not an issue on which reasonable people may reasonably agree, like campaign finance reform or sex trafficking. It’s not an issue on which everyone in politics should have an opinion, like deficit spending or the estate tax. It’s not a pressing concern, like the Iraq war exit strategy. It’s not an issue which the wingnuts have, for better or worse, forced into the public arena such that politicians may not dismiss it as the manipulative prairie muffin it is. It’s not even an issue America knew about last week.
This is political jingoism. This is a transparent ploy on the part of the Republican party to divert attention from the President’s poll numbers, which are holding steady at “extremely low.” This is designed to keep Republicans in place during the midterm elections. A concussed mealworm would recognize this for the shameless grandstanding it is. A politician with approximately forty years of political experience, fourteen of those in the senate, should know better. Even apart from the free-speech issue, Dianne Feinstein’s support for this amendment should be cause for her to hang her head in shame.
Feinstein, who flies the U.S. flag over her San Francisco and Washington homes, has been an outspoken advocate of a flag desecration amendment since the U.S. Supreme Court, ruling in two 5-4 votes in 1989 and 1990, found that federal and state laws banning flag burning and other acts of desecration were unconstitutional infringements of free speech.
On the Senate floor, the 73-year-old Feinstein recalled how, as a young girl, she was inspired when she picked up the Feb. 24, 1945, edition of The Chronicle and saw photographer Joe Rosenthal’s famous picture of Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima.
With a blow-up of the Rosenthal photo next to her, she described it as a wartime “bolt of electricity” that left her with an abiding feeling that the flag was more than a symbol.
Quoting the late Supreme Court Justice Byron White, she said, “The flag is itself a monument, subject to civil protection.”
“Freedom of speech enshrined in the First Amendment is the cornerstone of our great nation,” she said. “But any thought expressed in the burning of the flag can be expressed equally well in another manner.”
So when you saw this representation of a flag being planted on a famous battleground, you were overcome with emotion connected to the events that representation depicted? That sounds kinda symbolic to me.
Everyone agrees that the flag is a symbol: it is important to us because it means something. The Stars and Stripes. Old Glory. Brand America. It’s not an actual country or nation. It’s not an actual group of people. It holds no actual political power. Destroying any flag or every flag would not void any American law, or take away the rights of any citizen, or liberate citizenship from its current restrictions, or compromise our borders, or wipe our history out of existence, or saddle us with a new past. It wouldn’t make Americans forget their upbringing, or uproot them from their homes, or alienate them from the complex web of affinity that constitutes national and geographic identity. It wouldn’t make our military engagements any less deadly. It wouldn’t shift our reputation in either direction. It wouldn’t suspend a single one of the modern diplomatic and coalition obligations we’ve adopted for ourselves. It wouldn’t weaken the dollar or poison our GNP. It’s a symbol, a sign, a gesture. A powerful symbol is still a symbol.
That’s why it is not true that any statement made in reference to the flag would work as well, would be as powerful, if it used inferior materials. That power is unique to that symbol; Feinstein agrees with this in fact, or she would not be seeking special protection for this symbol and this symbol alone.
That is also why we cannot pretend that this symbol is not really a symbol, or that the people making symbolic statements with it or upon it are not engaging in speech. There is nothing special about these statements that removes them from the category of protected speech. They are not extra-dissenting. They are not extra-offensive. They are not extra-iconoclastic. (More on that later.) They are working with a set of meanings that we have attached to this piece of cloth, a group of concepts that must be scrutinized like all the others precisely because some people forget their fallibility. The flag is not more precious than the Constitution or the Bill of Rights–neither of those things have been protected from vituperative criticism, and some of their most ungrateful detractors are behind the anti-flag-burning Amendment.
I was talking to my Dad about this yesterday, and he made the excellent point that “desecration” is religious language. When writing this post, I’ve had to constantly edit out other religious terms: sacred, sacrilege, and blasphemy, for example. It’s an incredibly vague term from a legal standpoint, in part because the laws of this country try not to recognize those distinctions. The importance of a symbol, or its popularity, or its connection to the government, are not supposed to matter.
It’s vague from an artistic standpoint as well. Did Jasper Johns desecrate the flag? Does this use qualify? What if you slide rainbows in between the bars, or cover up the stars with hemp leaves or peace signs? What about this picture? What about this one? Or this one?
It’s an unseasonably cold day in Ogden, Iowa, outside the funeral of Daniel Sesker. Shirley Phelps-Roper has an American flag tucked in the waistband of her sweatpants, dragging it on the asphalt as she walks. Westboro’s emissaries pose for snapshots like they’re at a scenic lookout.
Or this one?
What if you’re using the flag to protest American crimes? What if you might be using it to express a sense of alienation from America, or hatred for America? What about this?
At the end of the nineteenth century, many Native Americans from many different tribes used flag imagery as a design element in their art, clothing, and crafts. While some of these objects were produced for sale or exchange with European Americans (the tourist trade was a growing component of many tribal economies), there is compelling evidence that many of these artifacts were used, worn, and treasured by Native Americans themselves. Not always literal or exact representations, Native American flag images often modify or abstract the pattern of the American flag, enlarging or shrinking the blue field, omitting stripes, or substituting other shapes for stars. But however the image is refashioned and transformed in Native American art, it is nonetheless recognizable as the American flag. These representations are a testament to the creativity and inventiveness of the Native American artisans who appropriated this symbol of European American power and dominance and adapted it to their own complex and diverse uses.
Native Americans also adopted the flag on occasion as an expedient way to make their traditional practices seem less threatening to Reservation authorities. When U.S. authorities banned the Lakota summer Sun Dance ceremony because they saw it as pagan and subversive, the Lakota adapted parts of the ceremony into a sanctioned Fourth of July celebration. Because the traditional sacred colors of the Sun Dance are red and blue, the insertion of American flag imagery did not disrupt the spiritual significance of the ceremony. Native American art also frequently introduces traditional sacred symbols into the representation of the flag pattern itself. Substituting the usual five-pointed stars with four-armed Morning Stars and crosses, Native American artisans transformed the flag into a representation of their own religious and cultural traditions. The varied examples of flag imagery in Native American art point out the multivalence of this symbol. For some artists, the representation of the American flag may have been a means to signify assimilation with the dominant culture, while for others, redesigned images of the flag probably served as a means of proclaiming their cultural independence. This exhibit explores different types of American flag imagery used in Native American art.