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.

<td style='padding:2px 1px 0px 5px;' colspan='2'Samuel L. Jackson Scale of Black Emotion
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The cycle of abuse and injustice

I recently read the book The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman. This is a story of Warsaw during the German occupation of World War II, told through the eyes of Antonina, the wife of the Jan Zabinski, the head of the Warsaw zoo. They both worked for the Polish underground and over several years sheltered in their villa over three hundred Jews as they tried to escape from the ghetto and get to freedom. The book is based on the diary of Antonina and recounts the tales of the refugees and of the animals under their care. It gives some first person insights into what life was like under Nazi occupation and during the Warsaw uprising.

One thing that I learned from the book that I did not know before was that “the Nazis were ardent animal lovers and environmentalists who promoted calisthenics and healthy living, regular trips into the countryside, and far-reaching animal rights policies as they rose to power. Goring took pride in sponsoring wildlife sanctuaries (“green lungs”) as both recreation and conservation areas, and carving out great highways flanked by scenic vistas.” (p. 86)

The well-known obsession of the Nazis about racial purity also extended to the animal kingdom and they had a particular interest in exotic species that generated some weird ideas, such as trying to bring back to life ‘pure-blooded’ species that were now extinct. In pursuit of this goal, they raided zoos in the countries they occupied, in search of animals that most closely resembled extinct animals so that they could do breeding experiments with animals that showed specific desirable traits. Lutz Heck, the director of the Berlin Zoo, was a key advocate of this idea.

Heck’s reasoning went like this: an animal inherits 50% of its genes from each parent, and even an extinct animal’s genes remain in the living gene pool, so if he concentrated the genes by breeding together animals that most resembled an extinct one, in time he would arrive at their purebred ancestor. The war gave him the excuse to loot east European zoos and wilds for the best specimens. (p. 80)

During the occupation, the people in Warsaw received rations of bread that were carefully calculated: Germans got 2,613 calories per day, Poles 669 calories per day, and Jews 184 calories per day (p. 104). No doubt German scientists had calculated precisely the minimum calories needed to maintain life. The Nazis also believed in the abominable practice of collective punishment, where in response to an act by a single individual, retribution was immediately meted out to the members of their family and even the extended community. “[I]n Poland harboring a Jew was punishable by immediate death to the rescuer and also to the rescuer’s family and neighbors, in a death-frenzy deemed “Collective responsibility”.” (p. 116)

In reading this I was struck by how Israel now practices collective punishment in the occupied territories by imposing a policy of restricting food supplies to the people of Gaza and also committing such acts as bulldozing the homes of the extended families of anyone suspected of any terrorist action.

In response to my series of posts denouncing the Israeli siege on Gaza and the attack on the relief flotilla, one commenter defended Israel’s actions and produced data suggesting that the physical health of Gazans was not that bad compared to people in some other developing countries. I did not respond to that comment, thinking that most readers here would recognize that you cannot justify a policy of deliberately restricting food reaching people merely by saying that other people are worse off. The point is that willfully brutalizing people, deliberately keeping them hungry and miserable, and denying them basic due process is wrong, whether or not the targets of such actions look emaciated as a result. Deliberately denying entire populations of people equal access to food and medicine and other staples of life based on their ethnicity, religion, or nationality is simply monstrous, whether done by Germans to Poles and Jews or by Israelis to Gazans, and also irrespective of whether any single groups receives minimal amounts.

Reflexive Israel supporters like Senator Chuck Schumer said, to enthusiastic applause from other Israel supporters: “And to me, since the Palestinians in Gaza elected Hamas, while certainly there should be humanitarian aid and people not starving to death, to strangle them economically until they see that’s not the way to go, makes sense.” He should be roundly condemned for these disgusting remarks. He seems to think that collectively punishing an entire population because he does not like who they elected is just fine as long as the people of Gaza have just enough food so as not to starve to death. And this man is a US senator. Why are there no widespread calls for him to resign?

You would think that any people who have suffered harsh injustices at the hands of others and know what it feels like would resolve to prevent such acts anywhere to anyone in the future. But the sad truth is that not only do they not oppose such actions, they even inflict them on others, perpetuating the cycle of injustice and oppression. We find on a collective scale the cycle we see in individuals, where the victims of abuse often become abusers themselves.

The US was born of anti-imperialist sentiment but that has not prevented it from becoming an imperialist power now, applying brute force on country after country. When I see the hateful anti-immigrant rhetoric and actions that are being used against Hispanic people, I often wonder if this does not originate in fear. Some whites may think that when white people in America become a minority, as they are projected to do sometime in the not-too-distant future, they may be treated as badly as they treated minorities.

The cycle of abuse and injustice must be broken. The only way to do that is to break free of the sense that allegiance to our particular tribe (whether ethnic, religious, or nation) is more important than our allegiance to human rights and justice.

POST SCRIPT: Brilliant Marcus Brigstocke rant on the three Abrahamic faiths

It is hard to disagree with anything he says.