We needn’t look very far to find controversy over the American flag. Although raised triumphantly by U.S. Marines on Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi; proudly flown over victory parades as Johnnies came marching home, (the original ANTIFA); and wondrously planted on the moon in 1969; where, when, how and why it’s fluttered has often been a bone of contention. To some, the stars and stripes is a powerful symbol of freedom and democracy while others believe it represents an illusion, promises broken and hopes shattered.
Author Henry Miller once said, “We have two American flags: one for the rich and one for the poor. When the rich fly it, it means things are under control; when the poor fly it, it means danger, revolution and anarchy.” Miller’s point has played out in a range of situations, not always precisely, but certainly as an illustration of the divide between us that seems to grow wider with each passing day. The same flag that was lowered to half-staff nationally, mourning the Marines who died in Afghanistan, was weaponized by insurrectionists, Proud Boys and white nationalists on Jan. 6, often paired with its antithesis — the Confederate flag.
Barre initiated what essentially became a flag of the month club last January, rather than simply raising the Black Lives Matter flag as requested, instead deciding entreaties for African Americans not to be shot required “balance,” so the BLM banner was raised but then lowered after 30 days, replaced by the “Blue Lives Matter” flag, also for 30 days, kicking off rotating monthly messages. The problem, as many saw it, was that a variety of far right militias and white nationalists had adopted the Blue as a racially motivated response to the Black.
More recently, the Granite City faced another flag dilemma when one citizen proposed again raising the huge American flag that flew over Main Street 20 years ago, marking the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But the request ran into several logistical issues: The flag needed repair; the mechanism designed to hold the flag wasn’t considered sufficiently strong; and the City Council failed to act on any of the motions, one councilor suggesting the myriad flags already flying sent a clear message and, acknowledging the controversial symbolism, suggested some might find the huge flag “intimidating.”
Predictably, the council’s non-action drew some angry responses but in the end, through a community effort, the hefty flag did fly for a couple of hours, perhaps temporarily smoothing over the controversy but, perhaps more importantly, illustrating the many decades of checkered politics surrounding the flag in American life. Even at the height of a world war.
In 1943, barely four years after having ruled the government could require “respect for the flag as a symbol of national unity,” the Supreme Court reversed itself, citing the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment protecting students from being forced to salute the flag or recite the Pledge of Allegiance in class. The court again affirmed that the free speech ensured by the First Amendment took precedence over respect for the flag deciding in a 5-4 vote that a Texas law against flag desecration violated the rights of a man who had burned a flag in Dallas, protesting the Reagan administration.
The dissenting justices maintained the flag held a special status as a symbol of national unity that was more important than symbolic speech and the government should be able to protect it from being burned. Congress agreed, passing the Flag Protection Act later that year but after the issue landed in front of SCOTUS once again in 1990, the court stood by the Texas decision. Since then, members of Congress have made a number of unsuccessful efforts to ban flag desecration, one championed by the Vermont Legislature in early-2002, tepidly urging Congress “Ensure flags are treated with respect.”
At that time, I wrote a Times Argus commentary entitled “Protecting the Flag from Itself,” suggesting for a number of reasons that stripping a revered symbol of its meaning, renders it a mere piece of cloth, worthy of neither protection or desecration. When American soldiers fight and die in battle, it isn’t for the physical flag but the freedom and democracy it represents, which includes both flying it proudly or incinerating it in protest.
In those dark, post-9/11 days, with one war just begun in Afghanistan and another not far down the road in Iraq, the Bush-Cheney presidency and congressional allies were looking for whatever litmus test they could find to measure the nation’s loyalty, a subterfuge for making the opposition look unpatriotic. In the process, they tried to frighten Americans into believing dissent equals threat; racial profiling is a vital tool; and sacrificing our personal rights, a reasonable sacrifice. The flag fight fit conveniently into their plans, forcing a full throated defense of the unpopular expression protected by the First Amendment, including desecration of the flag.
Back then, I learned the only legal way to dispose of an old, tattered or damaged flag is to burn it, a task frequently taken on by the Boy Scouts. Apparently, no one wanted to mimic 1984’s “thought police,” criminalizing what a person was thinking when setting the flag alight, not to mention the poor optics of arresting Boy Scouts, the furor quietly died down.
The 9/11 flag snafu in Barre was still prompting angry letters to the editor earlier this week, most of which condemned the council’s non-decision while illustrating how difficult it is to find common ground, especially when such a powerful symbol, far larger and more complex than a piece of cloth, is in play. But the flag demands more of us than a simplistic, dogmatic salute. Minimally, we should understand its meaning and how it might be interpreted in a variety of contexts, and yes, even intimidating to some.
A 12-year Marine Corps veteran, Scott Ritter, suggested: “I can train a monkey to wave an American flag. That does not make the monkey patriotic.”
Walt Amses lives in North Calais.