On the waving and burning of flags.

American flagsMy family is not really much for flag-waving. It’s a sweet thing to do – and we do still on occasion – but I suppose the bitterness of the dust kicked up by our collapsing civilization, flags and all, twenty some years ago spoiled our taste for it. I see all around me houses, balconies, apartment windows, cars, trucks, and an occasional baby stroller decorated proudly with stars and stripes – more in some parts of the country than others, but nowhere in the world I’ve been is the national flag displayed more than in the United States of America. House porches are pre-built with flag-holders. My family’s house looks a little bare on that starred and striped background.

I do have an American flag, though. One. Little one. It’s one of those $1.99 flags you can pick up at a convenience store, except I didn’t. Mine is exactly 16 years and 9 months old today, and it was a gift. On the day I took my oath as an American citizen, after the ceremony, a randomly smiling woman from what was then, I think, INS pulled out this little American flag from a vase, where they stood crowded like a tri-colored bouquet, and pushed it into my hand and said, “Congratulations,” and smiled at someone else.

American flagI have moved more times than I can count since that day, changing states and apartments and dorm rooms. This little flag has gone with me everywhere I’ve gone, along with a few other treasures of the heart. I don’t wave it; I just keep it standing up somewhere, where I can see it. In my room. I pledge allegiance to this flag. I pledge allegiance to the ones flying at half-mast several times a year, at chance places I pass. I pledge allegiance to the ones that fly over Fort Jackson, Fort Bragg, and the 304th Civil Affairs Brigade. And to the one at the entrance to the Delaware County Community College in Pennsylvania.

I don’t think I would ever burn a flag. There are certain symbols in this world we imbue with sacred meaning, and I’ve pledged allegiance to this one. It would take a lot for me to change my mind.

Then I turn on television and hear another debate on some proposed amendment against flag-desecration. I hear congressional and senatorial debate and how close we have come only a few years ago. I hear pundits and opinion pieces; I read comments on the internet. They speak of values and patriotism, and they are full of righteous indignation at those who would symbolically destroy the very system that nurtures them – at those who would trample on America by burning its most sacred symbol. Its secular icon. And they pledge allegiance to the flag. And they want their fellow Americans to do the same. Understandable. We make laws against spray-painting over art or vandalism in churches, don’t we?

And then I wonder.

American flagIn all the hours I’ve spent listening to pundit voices condemning the burning of flags as desecration, disrespect, and even treason, I’ve never heard a discussion about the soiling of flags, peeing on flags, throwing flags into trash, wiping feet on flags, and the infinite variety of casual disrespect we pay American flags when we craft underwear, bathing suits, door mats, and God knows what else from the cloth of stars and stripes. I did see some internet comments on this issue – mostly, as these things go, badly misspelled and rudely phrased, but at least to the point – yet the official, political debate doesn’t seem to address it. Maybe I am watching the wrong stations.

If you are beginning to think that I am proposing an amendment to include a prohibition of starred-and-striped clothing and doormats alongside flag-burning, don’t. I am going the other way. I think it is right that people should make underwear with whatever pattern tickles their fancy, even if I consider it slightly mind-boggling, or plug holes with the flag, even if I find it painful to watch. The thing with sacred symbols is that we make them so – everything that has meaning to us, only has meaning because we’ve imbued it with meaning or at least recognized it. American flagThe flag especially. It’s just cloth with a pattern, after all. That’s why its sacredness depends on the context: I would lay down my life under some circumstances, together with my fellows, I’m sure, to bring a flag somewhere and run it up that flagstaff, or to carry it out of danger – but I would risk no one’s life or limb to rescue a drawing of stars and stripes or to go get my little flag if my house were on fire. I’d grieve for it later, that’s all. It’s not the flag per se that’s important; it’s what we make it say every single time we display it or see it or think of it. It’s not the flag, really, that I pledge my allegiance to but the republic for which it stands. The nation — the one, indivisible, that chooses this symbol to declare that it aspires to liberty and justice for all.

That’s why I am honestly surprised that we, as a nation, as a culture, are not so much bothered by our everyday, casual, commercial, entertaining mishandling and destruction of the flag but are so, so bothered by the deliberate and solemn destruction of it by those who have a message to send and feel they can’t be heard unless they scream. The former relegates the flag from a national sacramental to a fad attraction, like Elvis sunglasses. The latter treats the flag exactly as it is meant to be treated: as the symbol of the nation, its spirit, and its policies. Those who burn the flag in protest respect it enough to imbue it with all the meaning of America and to let it – make it – carry the weight of America’s moral burden. And when the burden is too heavy, they set it down and light it on fire. Instead of burning people in effigy, they burn a flag. Without threatening anyone, they burn a symbol of everything their own country stands for – when desperately they find that it stands on the wrong side of Good.

American flag burning

Whether we agree with them, whether we agree on what that good is… Well, that’s the whole point.

We have created the symbol of our nation, and to it we pledge allegiance. Because it works as a symbol. Because we have imbued it with our spirit, our values, and our history. That’s why the burning of a flag is the one perfectly concise and yet broad protest against what we’ve become by those who have the right to say so. Flying the flag, saluting the flag, and solemnly burning the flag. I couldn’t do this last one, I don’t think, but that’s me. These are three actions in my mind respectful of the flag.

If you think that I am wrong, please, comment. Politely. And check your spelling. 🙂


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