Our President Elect Donald Trump cannot seem to keep himself out of the spotlight for long. Even before he’s taken office, he’s already garnered controversy day after day after day.
Most recently, he proposed a law via Twitter against burning an American flag, with the penalty a fine or loss of citizenship. Predictably, his detractors cried bloody murder – until they realized Clinton herself sponsored such a bill several years (on a side, Chateau Heartiste thinks this is all one giant trolling op by Trump).
Then you have the nationalists and the Alt. Righters saying it’s about time. They view this as payback for what the Progs and the libs have done for eight years against their political enemies. If a Christian baker can be forced to bake a gay wedding cake under threat of losing their business, why can’t the government ban flag burning? I’m sure they have other more repressive measures in mind besides that – as I have warned time and time again to the Left.
Like the whole Kapernick blowup over the national anthem, a lot of libertarians either got it or didn’t. C.Jay Engel at Reformed Libertarian struck the right tone; the Constitution gives the president zero authority as it is, and within libertarianism flag burning violates no one’s rights, provided the flag is owned by the burner. However, none of this escapes the true outrage behind the push for a flag burn ban; flag burning is usually a tasteless, crass act.
However, it is not flag burning itself that offends, but the motive or intent behind it. Ironically enough, the official way to retire American flags is by burning them. As a Boy Scout, I burned numerous American flags. But the ritual was carried out in a very ceremonial, solemn, reverent manner. It wasn’t an act of protest. As a young boy, it was as somber as burying a dead comrade after a battle.
Some libertarians love to poke fun at those who seethe at flag burning by saying they irrationally worship a skycloth. From a libertarian perspective, I appreciate their point, but that is only because I’m a libertarian. The context of that remark is totally lost on the people we are trying to reach who perceive the situation from a separate viewpoint.
Ultimately the American flag, like all flags, are symbols. They represent something besides cloth. The question is, what is it they represent? When someone burns the flag, what is it exactly they protest?
And this is where things get very, very confusing.
It all depends on who you ask. Writers such as Jack Donovan say despite its use as a distinctly ethnic flag by Americans (read: Anglo-Saxons), it is a symbol of the U.S. government. Donovan further notes that this is why some limited government right-wingers have Betsy Ross flags instead; it tacitly declares that their country is not the country that exists today under the current stars and stripes.
That is also why, as I see it, libertarians and conservatives wave the Gadsden “Don’t Tread on Me” flag as an alternative.
But again, what the American flag actually represents and what people think it represents are two separate things, and I contend that most Americans regard the U.S. flag the same way they treat the national anthem; as a symbol of their country and heritage, not the government that rules them. It would be absurd to claim that in a stateless society there would be no flags or that flags only represent governments. Private organizations today have their own flags.
That is why people have such a visceral emotional reaction to flag burning. It disturbs them the same way book burning or cross burning does. We grasp the greater context and meaning of the literal act.
Simply apply this argument to any other country in the world and you’ll see what I mean; the Irish see their flag as the flag of Ireland, not the Irish government. It’s why Irish Republicans sang “Take It Down From the Mast!” after losing the Irish Civil War. They didn’t see the government as the legitimate representative of the Irish people.
When Mexicans watched American troops tear down their flag in 1848 after conquering Mexico City and put up the U.S. flag, they didn’t treat it as a symbolic act merely representing the transfer of power between two governments. It symbolized their conquest by a foreign military force. To not understand this is to not understand what motivates many Hispanics on both sides of the border pushing for the Reconquista of southwestern United States territory. Americans may not remember what the U.S. government did in Mexico, but the Mexicans do.
We see this phenomenon occur with the debate over the Confederate flag. Those who seek to ban it or take it down from state capitols view it as a symbol of racism, slavery, and bigotry. However, for Southerns seeking to keep it up the flag represents their cultural heritage separate from that as merely Americans. One side wants it remove as a sign of progress, while the other considers the same act as yet another step toward completely abolishing their distinct cultural identity.
No doubt this concept of flags as symbols explains the enormous importance and value placed on them during war. It was a high honor to bear the colors of a unit, and it was the flag bearers duty to ensure it never touched the ground during battle. It was also why capturing an enemy flag was highly desired; it represented more than just taking cloth from another man.
The famous photo featured at the beginning of this post depicts Frenchmen watching their soldiers hurry out of Paris with their regimental flags to prevent capture by the Nazis who were on the cusp of marching into the city. The flags themselves had no strategic or military value, and were they to be seized by the Germans it would have made absolutely no difference to the impending French defeat.
But symbolically, the loss would have been devastating.
No one could reasonably claim the Frenchman cried merely over the fate of a skycloth.
Libertarians correctly note that our critics have a tendency to conflate society with government. However, it is also critical that we as libertarians not conflate nations with the governments that happened to be ruling them at a given time.
It is not the U.S. government people seek to protect when they want to ban flag burning, but perceived attacks to their national and cultural identity as a people. We might believe such acts should be permitted, but we should not react in surprise, contempt, or derision toward those who view such acts the same way a conquered people might witnessing their invaders torch their vanquished banners.
I would chance to say that those who typically burn the American flag are expressing the desire to replace it, and the national identity it represents, with another one that will be imposed by means we libertarians would not tolerate.