Flag Burning

by Jeffry R. Fisher

I do not approve of flag burning, but I don't think it should be forbidden either. The only laws affecting flag burning should be local ordinances regarding incineration in general. I arrived at this conclusion by thinking through what the flag is and whose it is, which implies how it should be used and how it should be protected, and by whom. Therefore, if burning is not prohibited as a hazard or a pollutant, then the flag should be ours to preserve or destroy as we wish.

Like so many other moral questions, the act is not as important as the attitude behind it. Saving colored cloth is irrelevant. What we need is to overcome the destructive attitude. What we need is a society that is free to burn the flag... but chooses not to.

What Is the Flag?

The flag is a symbol. As a symbol, it has meaning. Symbols mean only what they are perceived to be. As a public symbol, our flag's public perception is not carved in stone but derived from the things to which it is attached. Public perception, and therefore the flag's meaning, will be evolve to match the common characteristics of those associated things.

If attached to our government, the flag will acquire the aroma (or stench) of our government's character and acts. If attached to our nation (we the people), then our flag will come to represent our common virtues and nobility (or lack thereof). The side that takes ownership of the flag will determine what associations it has. Therefore, the owner will define its meaning.

Who owns the Flag, the Government or the Nation?

Before I can answer that question, I need a rhetorical digression to explain the difference, as nation is not the same thing as national government. These are two distinct concepts, and the world would be a much happier place in oh so many ways if only more people would separate the two in their minds.

First, the government should be a small organ bolted onto the side of society to handle ugly but necessary functions, as does a toilet in a house. By contrast, a nation is a whole society: a collection of people and their culture(s), analogous to an entire household with all of its residents doing different things at different times in various rooms. Living under a government that becomes the whole of society (socialism) is like living in a house that is just one big toilet: It's an outhouse, and it stinks.

Most people are unaware of the distinction most of the time. They allow government to take credit for the virtues and prosperity of the people, and they ask government to attempt to coerce all manner of societal goals that would be better left to the people at large.

Some confusion arises then, when somebody expresses national pride. Sometimes the person is confused, starting with pride in a culture and mistakenly extending it to support for bad government policies. Sometimes observers are confused, mistaking pride in people and culture as support for an immoral and overweening government.

[Tangent: This distinction has Foreign Policy implications]

Therefore, to avoid confusion on all sides, nationalists under all flags would do well to choose their words carefully so that they distinguish opinions of cultures from opinions of governments. Similarly, we the people would do well to clarify the symbolic meaning of our flag so that we and all observers will know what we are saying when we wave it or wrap ourselves in it.

Okay, So Whose Flag Is It Anyway?

I believe that the US flag should belong to our nation, not our government. As long as I think it symbolizes all Americans and our noble society, I will fly it proudly and pledge my allegiance to it. All Americans should be able to "wrap themselves in the flag". We should all be proud of our nation, and we should all work to be something to be proud of.

As long as we maintain that meaning, I see burning the American flag as an insult to Americans, not an insult to the government. It's something that foreign enemies might do. However, if our flag is ever hopelessly lost to government, I will burn every flag that I own, and I won't cite another pledge to one so long as it is not mine.

Imbecilic Acts Both Right and Left

The authoritarian left is burning flags while they're still owned by the people, and the authoritarian right is aiming to protect the flag by having the government assert property rights over it. Both are wrong.

Both the hostility on the left (sometimes demonstrated through flag burning) and the proposed enforcement on the right show that neither can separate the concept of nation from that of government. Note to authoritarians both left and right: It is possible to be proud of and loyal to one's nation even while condemning the acts of its government.

Enemies to the Left of Me...

That leftists can't embrace patriotism worries me. So many are openly hostile toward the USA... not just toward corrupt government agencies, but toward America and its culture too. If they hate American culture so much, why don't they move somewhere else? It's another reason to never grant them any power.

However, authoritarian right does us no favors by asking government to defend the flag as if it were government property.

Ironic Constitutional Amendment

I was aghast when I stumbled across the debate on CSPAN: The House of Representatives was arguing for a US Constitutional amendment that would grant Congress and States the power to make flag desecration a crime!

Ironically, a law or Constitutional amendment designed to protect the flag would be the very thing that would make it de facto government property. Government serves a useful purpose in achieving a consensus on what our flag should look like, but it goes too far if it assigns an armed guard. The very act of protecting it would change the flag and its meaning into something not worth protecting. Government would protect the cloth but annihilate its symbolic value. As government property, the flag would become every inch the Roman imperial fascis , symbolizing legions of empire rather than emissaries of liberty*.

Congress's debate is both an appalling waste of time and an egregious offense to liberty. With so many other amendments that they could be considering (repealing the 16th and 17th amendments comes to mind), amendments that could materially and structurally improve our nation and its government, these morons are investing their political energy in a superficial symbolic act that could later be perverted into all manner of tyranny.

I can see it now: American flags printed on all kinds of things (like draft cards) that the government wishes to protect from protests by the people. By protecting the flag, they make it not only a symbol but a device of oppression that will be printed upon every chain binding our descendants into government slavery.

Get this: It's my flag, dammit, and I'll burn it if that's the only way to claim it. I'll also burn it when it is soiled. I can't think of a more corrosive soiling than to have the government hijack my flag to disguise itself and cloak its shame. Therefore, if Congress ever refers a flag burning amendment to the states, my flags will all go up in flames before they can be stolen. I will destroy them rather than allow them to become symbols of tyranny and fascism.

A Different Way to Protect the Flag

How then should we preserve the flag? First and most important is to protect its essence. It does no good to protect the fabric from flame if the symbol has been attached to something unrighteous and become soiled thereby. When our flag is soiled, it is supposed to be burned. Therefore, our first effort must be to separate it from unwholesome associations.

Therefore, I have thought it better, in a time of protest, to take flags from the government rather than to burn my own. If I view the government or one of its agencies as unworthy of displaying our flag, then I am inclined to take its flags rather than burning mine.

I can see future flag protests happening this way: Patriotic citizens, under the watchful eyes of a free press, march up to a flag pole outside of an offending government agency. They gracefully and respectfully lower the American flag there, fold it carefully, and put it into an appropriate container.

Then they staple a receipt to the flag pole, posting their grievances and the conditions for the flag's return. The flag should then be placed in the care of a citizen sworn to return it if and when the government cleans up its act. Our flag should not be burned because an arm of the government betrays us.

Then, if you want to add an exclamation point to your protest, raise a flag over the offending agency that you think more appropriate for its behavior. You could have a lot of fun with this one...

Thus publicly defrocked (and perhaps relabeled), the agency will no longer be able to desecrate our flag with government's dirty business. Thus protected, the flag's reputation will decrease its chances of people burning it. Moreover, when people view our flag as something to be seized during a protest, then they'll be even less likely to burn it.

Copyright 2003-2008 by Jeffry R. Fisher: Permission is granted to reproduce this article in whole, but only in combination with attribution, the original title, the original URL, and this copyright notice.
Jeffry R. Fisher is the founder and president of Propagate Ltd, which is liberating digital content as LiberateIP.com.