Today, June 14th, is Flag Day.
In an earlier post, I wrote about a Wisconsin legislator who was in trouble for not saying the Pledge of Allegiance. In explaining why she did not do so, she said that "the flag is just a piece of fabric".
Her statement is quite true. The flag is a piece of fabric that is not worth the loss of a single life, or even the loss of any significant piece of property. As I argued at the time, if you were injured in an accident and the only cloth that I had available to use as a bandage to stop the bleeding was an American flag, I would use it.
If there was a risk of your house burning down and, somehow (imagine whatever scenario you like) I could use a flag to prevent the loss of your home, I would do so. A flag is worth a lot less than a house. A flag is, after all, just fabric.
Now, I would not use a flag to clean the dishes or to use as a fine strainer to get the pulp out of orange juice. Not unless I had some particularly important reason for having clean dishes or orange juice. That would seem to state an unequivocal disregard for the values that the flag represents. But it does not show disregard for the values that the flag represents to use it to save a life or a house.
Now, when it comes to those values – when it comes to liberty and justice for all, for example – these are cases where I would not destroy the principle to save a life – not even my own. In fact, if the choice was between the principle of liberty and a life, I would choose the principle over the life, even if it were my own. Or, at least, I hope that I would be able to do the right thing. If I had to make a choice between an the institution of justice and a life, even my own, I would protect justice.
One of the strange things that I have noticed over the past seven years is that there seems to be an inverse relationship between a person’s devotion to symbols (flags, lapel pins, pledges, mottos), and their devotion for the principles that these objects are supposed to symbolize. The Bush Administration strikes me as being populated and supported by people who will destroy liberty and justice to save a life, but willingly see thousands of people killed and homes destroyed to save a flag.
One of the statements that the Bush Administration used repeatedly since 9/11 is that our freedoms are of no use to us if we are dead, and so he will do whatever it takes to protect American lives. This type of statement simply ignores the fact that most of the people in uniform are there to do exactly the opposite – to give their life if it proves necessary to protect the freedoms and justice that the rest of us enjoy.
They are heroes because they put the institutions of liberty and justice above life. Bush, Cheney, and their cohorts dishonor those soldiers by asserting that the institutions of liberty and justice are to be the first things sacrificed the instant there is a life at stake.
We hear a great deal about Democratic Presidential Candidate Barak Obama not wearing a flag pin and not saluting the flag during the Pledge of Allegiance (the latter being a lie). We hear very little about Bush’s illegal wiretaps, cruel treatment of prisoners, arrest and confinement without trials, and signing statements.
The people who support Bush, we may assume, are the people who are critical of Obama. What these people exhibit by their behavior is the same principle that I identified above. The more vocal a person is when it comes to defending the symbols of liberty and justice for all (lapel pins and pledges), the less interested that person seems to be in defending liberty and justice for all.
Given this disposition, we might be well served to abolish pledges of allegiance, lapel pins, flags, and similar forms of patriotic idolatry. Those religions that prohibit followers from worshipping idols and symbols of whatever divine entity they follow because the worshippers of idols forget to worship the deity might be onto something. We might well have reason to believe that the promotion of patriotic idolatry goes hand-in-hand with the loss of respect for the values being symbolized.
This is just a hypothesis. It is not even that, really, given that it is grounded on anecdotal evidence that I might just be seeing purely because it is compatible with some interests that I have. Readers should not take this as an actual theory.
It does, however, point to the moral distinction between promoting symbols and promoting that which is being symbolized. It points to the fact that, morally, it is the love of liberty and justice for all itself that we should be promoting, not the love of the symbols of liberty and justice for all that we defend at the expense of those things being symbolized.
The flag is a piece of cloth. It is not worth our defense. Liberty and justice for all is worthy of our defense. But they are not a flag. When we see the flag we should be reminded not of a duty to protect it - because there is no such duty. We should be reminded of the duty to protect liberty and justice for all - that which the flag represents.
This relates to the issue of flag burning and whether this should be permitted or prohibited. I have mentioned that the right to freedom of speech is the right to be free from violence, not a right to be free from criticism. A person who communicates an idea by burning the flag has a right to be free from violence (including arrest and imprisonment), not a right to be free from criticism. In fact, most people who burn the flag are guilty of a great deal of criticism, because the ideas they are seeking to communicate are ideas worthy of criticism.
I had an idea for the next time the Senate debated a constitutional amendment to allow the burning of the flag. My plan involved getting all of the permits together for a fire in a field, where I would put up 100 American flags. Each flag would be on a pole that had the name of a Senator on it.
After the vote, I would go down the rows of flags while reading the roll-call of the votes for the Amendment. If the Senator voted for the Amendment, I would remove that flag and burn it. If the Senator was not present or abstained, I would remove the flag without burning it. In the end, there would be a field of flags and empty flag poles, where every flag represented a Senator who knew the difference between a symbol of liberty and liberty itself, and protected that which had the true value.
In this case, those who protected liberty itself would have protected the symbol of liberty as well, while those Senators who voted against liberty would have failed also to protect the flag.
This seemed to me a good way to communicate the idea that some Senators seem to have forgotten the difference between defending a symbol and defending an institution, and the true defenders of the flag are those who defend, not the cloth itself, but the institutions that give the flag meaning.