Set fire to the flag, watch it all burn

Earlier this year, one of my cohorts set fire to a U.S. flag as part of Trans Pride festivities. The response to their actions was shocking: They, the person who posted a video of the burning, and anyone even proximally associated were subjected to brutal attacks including transphobic and racist harassment on social media, followed by doxing. People were apparently deeply angry that they had burned a flag, and it was something that none of us really expected — the vicious debate over flag burning felt like a 1990s thing, a relic of The West Wing, not like something that should be a huge deal.

I have some pretty strong feelings about burning the flag, and if I tried to sum them up in a sentence, it would probably be basically this: Free speech is a thing.

But given the outsized drama of the response, apparently flag burning is still something that people find debatable, so I thought that perhaps I should sit down and articulate my thoughts at greater length. Because the thing is that flag burning is legal, and sometimes actively necessary, and always an expression of free speech, and as such, it should be protected. People fought and died for this flag, and they also fought and died for the right to burn it, and some of them even burned it in protest.

So let’s talk about flag burning, but first, let’s talk about the Flag Code. I happen to be extensively familiar with the Flag Code, because I used to work for a Congressman, and one of my many jobs involved dealing with flags.

The Flag Code actually specifically indicates that the respectful way to dispose of a tattered, worn, or otherwise damaged flag is via burning. (You will note that a few museums, government buildings, and the like actually have flags in their collections that have been damaged and technically should be burnt, but represent an important historical or cultural event.) That’s what the picture above depicts, as a matter of fact. In flag retirement ceremonies, flags are respectfully handled and gently sent on their way.

Worn, tattered, and damaged flags must be destroyed, which is why it peeves me no end to see derelict, tragic flags hanging in front of businesses, government offices, and private homes (especially since many of the people screaming blue murder about flag burning are the same ones who maintain flags in a state of shocking and disrespectful disrepair). The Flag Code also specifies that the bed isn’t apparel, bedding, or drapery. That you cannot affix things to it. Yet, ‘patriots’ like to do all of these things — I saw Donald Trump’s face printed on a flag just the other day.

It’s very important to me to treat the flag respectfully. Yes, it’s a piece of fabric, but it is a piece of fabric with some important cultural and social symbolism, embodying both the best and worst parts of the United States. There’s a reason I sit through the Pledge of Allegiance, and it’s not sheer cussedness — to my eye, it’s something undertaken too casually, with too little thought, and that bothers me, just as it bothers me to see people ordered or coerced into doing it. Yet, part of that respectful treatment also involves engaging with its potent symbolism, and setting the flag on fire is a clear, stark form of protest.

It is a signal of deep distress, frustration, and fury. It is the voice of someone who feels disempowered and voiceless, who wants to comment on the state of society. It is an action undertaken on behalf of those who are no longer with us, including those who died in the name of that flag. It is a commentary on past and present colonialism, on the culture surrounding notions of what ‘patriotism’ means. If it weren’t such a potent act, it wouldn’t bother people as much as it apparently does.

The question of flag burning has also been asked, debated, and answered, with various attempts to outlaw it and a notable Supreme Court case, Texas v Johnsonweighing in on the side of supporting flag burning as an act of free speech. The case revolved around an incident in which Gregory Lee Johnson set fire to a US flag outside the Republican National Convention to protest Ronald Reagan. Texas charged and convicted him under a law about ‘desecration,’ and he took it to the Supreme Court, arguing that it was an act of symbolic speech, and as such should be protected under the First Amendment. Whether or not society is offended by it — and perhaps even because society is offended by it — it’s protected speech.

Justice Stevens, writing for the dissent, disagreed, but in so doing, he made some telling comments about people’s relationship to the flag, which is indeed a sort of extension of a living entity. That’s kind of the point of burning it: Some refer to this as desecration or an insult, yet if we are going to treat the flag as a living entity, we must also treat it as something that people can argue with in a form of commentary about what it stands for. Since yelling at a flag doesn’t carry much of an impact, some protesters, frustrated by what they see as serious problems with the United States, opt to burn it. Admittedly a unique form of disagreement and one I don’t endorse for actual living entities, but it does send a clear message.

People may be offended and upset by flag burning. Maybe they should be, because perhaps they’re the ones who should be getting the message sent by crackling flames rippling along the stars and stripes. But being offended and violently threatening people are two very different things. You can express dismay, but it’s unreasonable to make death and rape threats directed at people who participate in flag burning. It’s in poor taste to complain that people engaging in political speech are not behaving sufficiently politely. The whole point is that burning a flag is impolite. It’s radical impoliteness. It’s a cry for people to wake up and pay attention, because their house — America — is on fire, metaphorically as well as literally.

In the end, it’s not my job to tell you that you have to like flag burning, but if you think it’s acceptable to respond to flag burning with violent assaults, then you need to ask yourself some serious questions. And if you’re the kind of person who assaults flag burners, I had better not find a single American flag trinket, garment, bedding item, or other commercial product around your house. And any and all flags that you’re flying had better be in excellent condition, taken down every evening or illuminated at night, all-weather if they’re flown outdoors, because if they aren’t, you’re the one who’s being disrespectful, by treating the flag like a meaningless badge of patriotism, instead of the living symbol that it is.

Image: Flag Retirement Ceremony, Fort George G. Meade Public Affairs Office, Flickr