Sunday, April 16, 2006

I Don't Get the Flag Burning Thing

So the House has passed a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning again. I understand that the reason this continues to come up is that it is red meat for the conservative base. I understand that this is a clear-cut appeal to emotion. What I don't understand is why it packs any sort of emotional pop at this point in time.

The American flag is a symbol, nothing particularly interesting there. But a symbol for what? The trivial answer is that it represents the country. As a representation of the country, it also represents the values, ideals, and aims of the nation. Among these is freedom, which is why it was a favorite in the 60's amongst the counter-culture -- think of Peter Fonda's character "Captain America" in Easy Rider. The freedom that the hippies sought certainly was not in line with what the conservatives pictured as American, but the use of the flag as a symbol that invoked this freedom was not exclusive, it was not meant to draw lines between us and them. To the contrary, it was meant to say that they were Americans, too -- that they loved the liberty afforded them by their citizenship and showed that they were far from anti-American -- indeed, it was intended to show that they were fully realizing what they thought was the potential of being an American.

But then came Viet Nam. The flag was now adopted as the symbol for the pro-war movement. But, as Hanno pointed out to me a while back, it was at this point that the symbol became exclusive. When an overtly and explicitly political movement adopted the flag as a symbol, it now came to signify that only conservatives were real Americans.

It was in this context that flag burning became a political statement. It was meant not only to express disapproval of the war in Viet Nam, but also outrage about the terms which were now being used to define "American" in a way that kept them out of their own country. The right, by turning the flag from a symbol of unity, representing the whole country and its common shared history and values, into a mere tool of political persuasion desecrated it as a symbol. It was this politically degraded flag that became a target of political speech. Burning the flag was not an anti-American act, an act of attacking a symbol of the nation because the flag's function as a symbol of the nation as a whole had been lost. Destroying a flag, at this point, was no more anti-American than destroying a peace sign. The two were not representations of the nation as a whole, but mere political symbols representing viewpoints and their destruction was a visual representation of opposing the political perspective.

But that was then. This is now. The flag no longer has the same symbolism. No one on the left cringed when the captain of the US Olympic hockey team draped himself in the flag after their stunning victory in 1980. It was a standard part of the stump speech of Howard Dean that the flag belongs to all of us, not just to the right-wing of the Republican party. After the 60's, the flag became the national symbol again. It was largely depoliticized.

This is not to say that the right hasn't been trying to repoliticize and reclaim it. The magnetic flags on the bumpers of cars, trucks, and SUV's is clearly an attempt to redraw that line using OUR flag, the flag of ALL AMERICANS, but no one on the other side is biting (with the exception of ANSWER-type folks who seem eager and more than happy to repeat every mistake the left made in the 60's out of some sort of misplaced sense of romanticism). No one, at least no one inside of the US, is burning flags. It ain't happening. No one opposed to the conservative movement is really interested in burning flags, except to bring a potential legal challenge to what is clearly an unconstitutional abridgment of political speech. But that is not a protest burning, but a technicality necessary to protect the most basic liberties that this country stands for. So I don't see why is it still a rallying cry for the right. What am I missing?

I would say it's a strawman, but even strawmen don't burn flags. (Strawmen, after all, are themselves quite flammable and stay away from fire altogether -- remember the scene in the Wizard of Oz.) So why is it back? Is it a bizarre form of nostalgia on the right just like electing someone named "George Bush" in 2000 would make seem as if Clinton never defeated George Bush I in 1992? Is it a generational thing? Do older conservatives support this more than younger ones? Why would this be one of the things the GOP is rolling out as a central plank of their strategy for the upcoming elections? Is it like Hollywood remaking the classics hoping that the new King Kong would capture people like the original when anyone with half a brain could tell that the new version would be so inferior to the original that it would only bring derision? I just don't get the flag burning thing.