Sunday, October 4, 2009



Flag-burning is an interesting subject. So are flags. The first thing I notice when I get back to the States from a long trip to Germany is that there are flags all over the place. In Berlin, you only see flags on the Bundestag building, and that's understandable because it's the seat of government. But private citizens don't fly German flags over their homes, businesses don't drape them over their lobbies, people don't sticker them to their cars and they certainly don't wear flag lapel pins, even the newscasters.

By contrast, it seems that flags are everywhere in the United States. From the moment you step off the plane you see flags. There are flags hanging everywhere at the airport. You can buy little flags at the gift shop, people wear flag T-shirts and even the Dunkin Donuts shop sports a flag, since it is very patriotic to buy pastries and coffee. Outside the airport, there are even more flags. You can't drive through many suburban neighborhoods without seeing flags in windows, flags on poles on lawns, and, if you go inside a house, flags on quilts and blankets, or flags in picture frames. If you get a cocktail at a bar, you might find a paper-flag toothpick in it. Car dealers fly enormous flags over their parking lots. So do amusement parks and waterslides. In New York, every commercial building has a flag in it. Every apartment building I've ever lived in has had a flag in the lobby. I don't know how paying rent to a private landlord (who probably hates taxes) is patriotic, but what do I know?

America is unabashedly nationalistic. It doesn't like flag-burning because it loves flags. Many Americans attach mythical status to their flag. Personally, I don't like unchecked nationalism. I think it's fine to be proud of your country, but I don't feel the need to blare it by displaying flags and shouting down those who burn them. Not only that, but Americans don't really object to flag-burning "in the abstract." You can burn an Afghani or Russian flag and no one would give a fart. No, Americans don't like American flag-burning. So it's more a selective objection than a principled one.

Congress criminalized American flag-burning in the late 1980s. In a brave moment, the Supreme Court invalidated that law. But many saw the same case as a betrayal and reviled the Supreme Court for deciding it. Trouble is, we have a little thing called the "First Amendment" which guarantees "free speech." I think flag-burning is speech. You might hate what the speaker believes, but I think he has a right to say it without being jailed.

Beyond that, I find America's obsession with flags very disturbing. Relentless nationalism is dangerous, pure and simple. If anyone knows that, it's the Germans. That's why they aren't so zealous about flying flags all over the place anymore. 50 million dead worldwide (including genocide) convinced Germany that blind patriotism really wasn't a healthy prescription for anyone, including themselves.

I have difficulty according blind respect to any symbol. True, the American flag has long stood as a symbol for democracy, freedom and self-government. But sadly our Nation often falls short on its promises. As a "world leader," it often comes across as intransigent and churlish, not compassionate or principled. If people burn the American flag, they probably object to some perceived injustice America has committed. In my view, it makes no sense to categorically condemn flag-burning without at least acknowledging what the speaker means to say. Perhaps America truly has done something blameworthy. If we are committed to our principles, shouldn't we want to rectify a bad situation rather than ignore it?

This is the trouble with nationalism: It prevents people from rationally considering divergent opinions, even if they voice legitimate objections. From a nationalist's perspective, there is the "American way" or there is "no way." But life is never so simple. Still, America's love affair with flags all too often reveals that many Americans believe exactly that. In my view, simple-mindedness is not something to be proud of. It is just foolish. And it stifles rational dialogue that could lead to progress.

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