As we approach the independence day holiday with its orgy of patriotic fervor, I want to remark on one of the things that I find curious about America, and that is its flag fetish. People seem to treat the country’s flag with a level of veneration that I find somewhat bizarre. There even exist statutes that spell out in incredible detail how the flag should be treated such as how and when the flag should be raised and lowered, how it should be carried or folded, how old flags should be destroyed, and so on. All the rules of etiquette surrounding the flag are incredibly complex and June 14 has even been designated as Flag Day. Most people, I suspect, are not aware of many of these rules such as, for example, that the flag should never be used as wearing apparel, should never touch anything beneath it, such as the ground, the floor, or water, should never be carried flat or horizontally, and so on. Even the Bible does not get this level of special treatment.
However there are no penalties in the statute for violating any of these rules. As a result of flag burning cases, the US Supreme Court has ruled that doing what one likes to the flag is a form of speech protected by the First Amendment.
It is curious though that some acts that are officially deemed to be disrespectful to the flag are routinely committed with no controversy. For example, the rule that “The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever. It should not be embroidered on such articles as cushions or handkerchiefs and the like, printed or otherwise impressed on paper napkins or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discard.” Yet one sees images of the flag on all kinds of merchandise and advertising, especially around the fourth of July. It looks like people venerate making money even more than they do the flag.
While Muslims justifiably get made fun of for getting all bent out of shape when they feel that their prophet is being dissed by even drawing a cartoon of him, the veneration with which Americans treat their flag is very similar to that irrational reaction. If you were to go on a public street and place the flag on the ground and stomp on it, I would not be surprised if you angered many bystanders and even rouse some of them to violence against you in order to protect the ‘honor’ of the flag. Look at the reaction that occurs whenever political protesters burn the American flag and the periodic moves to pass a constitutional amendment to prevent desecration of the flag. Thankfully, we haven’t had that kind of silliness for some time.
I recall a community discussion during the first Gulf war in 1992. In one incident in that war, a group of fighters had used Allah as a rallying cry to fight US troops, saying they were defending Islam. In the discussion, some people said that they could not understand how so many Muslims could get so impassioned about fighting for Allah. The idea of fighting for god instead of nation seemed irrational to them. I pointed out that American troops use their flag as a rallying cry in just the same way (the national anthem itself is all about such an incident), and from the point of view of Muslims, Americans must seem even more irrational in the way they were willing to fight for a mere flag instead of their god.
The people in the room were surprised by my comments. Until I raised it, the thought had never crossed these people’s minds that the honor and value they placed on the flag was a form of idol worship similar to what people place on god and religion.
Once again, it reveals that it is really hard for people and nations to see themselves from the point of view of others.
POST SCRIPT: Angry black men
I really like the exchanges between Jon Stewart and Senior Black Correspondent Larry Wilmore. They can find humor in racial stereotypes while still showing its ridiculousness.
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