Flag fetish

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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  1. Eric says

    Mano -- this reminds me of Eddie Izzard’s routine about building empires through the cunning use of flags:

    “I claim India for Britain!”
    “What? You can’t claim us. We live here!”
    “Have you got a flag?”
    “What difference does that make? There’s 500 million of us!”
    “No flag, no country.”

  2. dave says

    I’m not sure the U.S. is very different in the way it regards its flag. I’ve lived in China and South Korea and seen similar protocol and veneration.

    For example, wikipedia talks about the distinct protocol India has in handling its flag:

    “Display and usage of the flag is governed by the Flag Code of India, 2002 (successor to the Flag Code – India, the original flag code); the Emblems and Names (Prevention of Improper Use) Act, 1950; and the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, 1971.[17] Insults to the national flag, including gross affronts or indignities to it, as well as using it in a manner so as to violate the provisions of the Flag Code, are punishable by law with imprisonment up to three years, or a fine, or both.[29] Official regulation states that the flag must never touch the ground or water, or be used as a drapery in any form.[17] The flag may not be intentionally placed upside down, dipped in anything, or hold any objects other than flower petals before unfurling. No sort of lettering may be inscribed on the flag. When out in the open, the flag should always be flown between sunrise and sunset, irrespective of the weather conditions. Prior to 2009, the flag could be flown on a public building at night under special circumstances; currently, Indian citizens can fly the flag even at the night, subject to the restriction that the flag should be hoisted on a tall flagpole and be well-illuminated.[17][30] The flag should never be depicted, displayed or flown upside down. Tradition also states that when draped vertically, the flag should not merely be rotated 90 degrees, but also reversed. One “reads” a flag like the pages of a book, from top to bottom and from left to right, and after rotation the results should be the same. It is considered insulting to display the flag in a frayed or dirty state, and the same rule applies to the flagpoles and halyards used to hoist the flag, which should always be in a proper state of maintenance.[23]”

    And it goes on….

  3. Eric says

    Speaking more seriously than my comment yesterday, the flip side of the equation is that symbols…well, symbolize certain things, and people place (often disproportionate) value in the symbol itself.

    There’s no question that the U.S. has done a lot to stray from our national principles, but very few other nations were founded on such lofty principles as this one. Freedoms of expression & religion; equal justice and rights for everybody; a haven for the persecuted; a government answerable to its citizens… there’s no question that it’s a constant struggle to adhere to those principles. It’s taken a lot of time and blood to even come as far as we have, and we’ve still got a long way to go. We’ve fallen behind in a lot of areas, but still…we’re trying. For many people (myself included), the flag is representative of that struggle.

    One thing the flag-burning Amendment proponents fail to recognize is that one of the most important values the flag symbolizes is freedom of speech. The fact that I, personally, would not choose to protest by burning a flag does not give me the right to make that choice for you.

  4. says

    1. The flag is a real thing. The deity worshiped by the Muslims isn’t (of course, the other deities are fictional as well)

    2. Both the images of Mohammad and the flag represent ideals to their people, so I suppose that I can better understand why Muslims get upset. Thanks for helping me see that.

    I try to treat the flag with a bit of respect, but I’d vigorously oppose the moronic “anti-flag burning amendments” to the Constitution.

    Now I think that we take things a bit too seriously; why do we play the national anthem prior to SPORTING EVENTS? I’ve never understood that one.

  5. Kyle says

    Interesting post. A few thoughts:

    I’ll agree that the flag treatment rules are strange in their complexity, but I think that symbols in general have a sound purpose. Treating a symbol with respect can signal to others how you feel about the entity or the principles it represents. And even in complete privacy, the respectful actions can be a tool for internal reflection on the value of the symbol’s meaning. Personally, I find a completely secular value in treating the flag with some level of care and following some of its related social norms as a way of reaffirming to myself that I am thankful for America’s freedoms and underlying political philosophies. I’m not particularly nationalistic, and I fully reject notions of American exceptionalism or cultural superiority… but I don’t see a problem in having favorable opinions of a nation’s core ideals or using symbols to reflect that, as long as it is kept in perspective that the symbol itself is, at best, merely a tool.

    I hadn’t really thought about how similar the Mohammed cartoon protests are to flag burning anger. I think the responses in both cases are less due to the actual act, and more related to the idea that those defacing the symbols are intending to provoke and insult the ingroup(s) of those being offended. I would get angry at someone burning a flag in my presence if they were intending to target me – not because I’m concerned about the piece of cloth being damaged, but because of the implied insult to myself and presumably a principle to which I’m sympathetic. That being said, it is and would always be completely inappropriate to respond with violence to a cartoon, a flag burning, or any other expression of speech.

    I disagree with the suggestion that American fighters are irrational in fighting for “a mere flag,” because I don’t think it is at all accurate to say the flag really “is” their purpose. I hope you didn’t mean to suggest that they have no deeper cause than the flag itself. Soldiers might use the flag as a visual reminder of their cause, but surely if you dig deeper into their beliefs and intentions for serving, they know that they’re ultimately fighting for political philosophies, freedoms, and national principles. To suggest they’re literally putting value in the cloth of the flag and the design of its stitching is somewhat belittling and a distortion of reality. However, I don’t reject the analogy with the Muslim fighters because they may be invoking Allah partly as a symbol of their cultures and philosophies as well. While the Muslim fighters believe in Allah as an actual being and Americans almost certainly do not see supernatural value in the flag, there are some similarities in how each symbol is used in that instance.

  6. says

    In my country, there are also similar rules on how to treat our country’s flag. To show respect to what the country has gone through in the past, I believe that it is appropriate to treat the flag properly. As much as possible, we should not use it as a garment or use its design to decorate everyday things like paper, frames, stickers.

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