Let us not cower from confrontation: The flag is a rag.
Notice that I say “confrontation,” rather than “controversy.” There is no real controversy in my phrase above. The flag as an object (obviously by “THE” flag, I mean the American flag) is nothing but a wad of cloth; it is simply a rag. Granted it is a very colorful rag – all those primary reds, whites, and blues – but a rag none the less. Notice how people will denounce the above phrase – to say nothing of the burning of such a rag – yet be happy enough to wear the flag as a t-shirt, or print it on napkins to wipe their mouths with it, calling themselves “patriots” for doing so.
The Butthurt-baby Electi has recently declared that he would deny citizenship, and/or impose jail time, for anyone who burned the rag (presumably in an inappropriate manner, since proper flag protocol demands that an old and worn flag actually be burned.) This, of course, is the method of fascists – to abandon legal, logical, &/or principled constraints, in favor of mythological and emotional symbols, waved about enthusiastically as justification for the hysteria of the mob. In this context, I invite you to reflect on the leading picture of this post as we move forward. That picture is of my personal copy of the Constitution of the United States, which I keep with me, pretty much at all times.
Now, for my part, I’d never willingly participate in a flag burning, and I would not personally be able to step up to one of those art exhibitions where viewers are invited to step on a flag, positioned as a rug in front of the display. But I also categorically refuse to entertain one word, one syllable, of condemnation of those who create or participate in such actions.
There are so many things not merely wrong, but objectively disgusting, about flag fetishism, that it is difficult to know where to begin. So I’ll make my rather subjective choice with the infantile twaddle about how so many of our service people supposedly “died defending the flag.” I do not doubt that there are many persons who served honorably, yet who buy into this nonsense. Their service to the contrary not-with-standing, that line is one of the most singularly indefensible claims ever made by pseudo-patriots and other spite-dripping hypocrites.
Any and every person who has ever served in the Armed Forces of the United States has taken an oath. That oath, in my case, and I suspect in most other cases, was in front of a flag, but never about that flag. Almost 42 years after the fact, the part of that oath that I still remember, that still brings me to tears, and to which I still consider myself unequivocally bound, included the commitment, “to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, against all enemies, foreign and domestic” (my emphasis.) No mention of, or reference to, “the flag” ever occurred in that oath.
Let us consider some of the differences between “the” flag, and “the” Constitution. Let us start with why I scare-quoted “the” in the preceding.
Stated simply, every existing, physical example of “the” flag, &/or “the” Constitution, could be erased from actuality, yet “the” flag and “the” Constitution would still be meaningful concepts of genuinely real objects. There is a tricky distinction here, so please pause: “actual” is not the same as “real;” the distinction is a metaphysical one that I’ll not be able to explore in detail, but eliminating the former (the actual) does not erase the latter (the real). The mythological emblem which is “the flag” would still continue to function in people’s minds even if every actual representation of that emblem were somehow destroyed. Similarly, the cognitively dense legal and logical compact which is the Constitution would still function in force were every print edition and copy of it to be inexplicably erased. “The” thing itself (flag, Constitution) is not about this or that physical exemplar, or even all of them combined. Rather, they are about the meanings they bring into focus, a focus rendered somewhat sharper by having the physical exemplars close to hand.
But as my adjectives in the above paragraph make plain, there is an absolute and irreducible difference between the flag and the Constitution: the flag is ineliminably mythological, while the Constitution is always and primarily cognitive in its content. Fascists invariably turn to mythological symbolism, a fact which the great Ernst Cassirer detailed in his book, The Myth of the State. Cassirer devoted a large part of his life to the study of systems of symbols, primarily as these broke out across language, myth, and science. One of the leading intellectuals of Germany in his day, Cassirer was also Jewish. He witnessed the rise of Hitler to power, and eventually escaped first to Göteborg, Sweden, then later fled that country with his wife, his life, and not much else than the socks on his feet, to the United States. Here he taught at Yale and Columbia until his death in 1945 from (happily enough) natural causes.
It was in these years that he wrote The Myth of the State (in better English than most native speakers), explaining the emergence of fascist ideology in terms of its appeal to purely mythic forms of thought and symbolism. Mythological symbolism does not operate via logic, but through its densely emotional appeal. Much of that emotion comes from the way mythological symbols are infused with personal agency, sometimes god-like, other times demonic. And while objects can be imbued with a kind of personhood, actual persons can become denuded of theirs. Thus, members of the group obtain their personhood not through the intrinsic fact of their being persons, but through the extrinsic fact of their membership. Outsiders, lacking that extrinsic membership, are reduced to mere things. Whip up the crowds with this type of emotional investment, rather than with logic and reasoned argument, and they will follow you anywhere, all without the littlest, little regard for the blatant lies in your words or the logical vacuity of your concepts. Because against the intransigent wall of mythological emotionalism, what (in Isaac Asimov’s words) can the “feeble lance of reason” do?
Notice how these people never pull out their copy of the Constitution and cite this Article or that Amendment. No, they always and only wave the flag.
Because the flag does not argue with them. The flag does not set limits on their behavior, or demand that they show others the rights and respects that they otherwise demand for themselves; the flag gives them permission to pursue, “with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints” all of their goals without ever requiring that they justify what they’ve done, how they’ve done it, or require they explain the monstrousness they’ve made actual. This is how mythological symbols operate.
The Constitution is far less forgiving, far more demanding. It requires reasons, and imposes duties. It insists that justifications be public and compelling, and rejects privileges based on habit and history. This is because the Constitution is cognitive, based on law and logic. A quote, typically attributed to Molly Ivins, is appropriate here. It says something to the effect, “I much prefer a person who burns the flag and wraps himself in the Constitution, to one who burns the Constitution and wraps himself in the flag.” _____________________________________________________________
iA friend whom I respect recently worried about the juvenile nature of that term. I was convinced I was right to stick with it, but it took me a moment to formulate why: the most intolerable thing for a tyrant is neither resistance nor defiance, but rather mockery.