Treat the Flag Like Shit But Don’t Burn It!

American Flag

I find it curious that there are still people who think that burning the American flag is some terrible thing. A lot of people want to make it illegal. But could there be any form of speech that the First Amendment most clearly applies to?

If you think that the United States has betrayed its own ideals, what better way is there to say so than to burn the American flag?

When I was a kid, it was widely believed that if a flag fell on the ground, it had to be destroyed — by fire. Or maybe burying it. Certainly, you wouldn’t want to throw it in the trash. Regardless, this was the kind of thing that you supposedly did out of respect for the flag.

It turns out that most people say you do not have to destroy a flag that touches the ground. But it doesn’t matter. It shows that how one treats the flag is open to opinion. And it changes over time.

I know it’s shocking to many, but we all show our patriotism in our own ways. What I don’t like is people who get angry at others while they show a facile kind of patriotism themselves.

Flags in My Neighborhood

The neighborhood I walk each day features dozens of American flags flying outside houses. Almost all of these houses feature multiple trucks and badly managed lawns, so I know they are owned by conservatives. And not one of these flags is taken down at night or in bad weather. I know because I take walks in the early morning and at night.

I also know because many of these flags are badly worn. One is obviously fraying when viewed from across the street. And I’m sure that these people think themselves very patriotic. “Remember last year when I bought a flag and hung it up?!”

Facile Patriotism

This is very much like the yellow ribbons that I saw on cars during the George W Bush administration. It showed that you supported the troops! It’s set-it and forget-it patriotism.

This fetishization of the American flag is thus literal “virtue signaling.” It the kind of patriotism that signals that you are a Good Person as opposed to people like me who have a more nuanced but active patriotism.

And by and large, these flag-wavers are the people who are most offended by the burning of the American flag. In Shoe0nHead’s video, these free-speech champions were mostly all for laws against flag burning. The people who didn’t think it should be illegal were mostly military, who I would hope would also treat their flags well.[1]

I have little doubt that many of the insurgents on 6 January 2021 had well-worn flags outside their own houses. They don’t love America so much as “America.” Easily won patriotism is just as easily lost.

But I totally defend their right to treat their flags badly. I’m just not as accepting of the way they treat our country.


[1] It’s amazing how many people bring up the burning of the BLM flag without understanding the issue at all. It was stolen from a church and then burned. The issue was never that you can’t burn a BLM flag. Yet in their minds, there was some special law that protected BLM. It’s amazing! It’s like the old NRA bumper stickers, “I’m ignorant as fuck, and I vote!

Image via PxHear — it is in the public domain.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

6 thoughts on “Treat the Flag Like Shit But Don’t Burn It!

  1. Good pointing out that most flag-waving doesn’t follow official military flag-care protocol. You are not, for example, supposed to fly a flag at night, unless it’s lit up by floodlights. Since this protocol is ignored by many chintzy restaurants in America, it’s not thought of as a big deal. And, really, would you want it to be? I don’t want some restaurant worker being yelled at because they didn’t lower the flag just right (it’s a whole thing, you aren’t supposed to let it touch the ground, and it’s supposed to be folded in a very precise way — when you attend a veteran’s funeral, and there’s a flag in a triangular box, that’s how the flag is supposed to be folded.)

    It’s worth remembering that Secretary Clinton co-sponsored a bill, not passed, which would have sharply increased penalties on flag-burning. Which was the perfect example of Clinton Democratic clueless “triangulation.” Such a law would have put almost nobody in jail — it’d be easy enough to find other symbols to burn which made the same point –:and it was intended to appeal to “cultural conservatives.” Well, good luck with the latter, that didn’t work.

    It IS curious that anybody still raises a stink over this, I thought this particular right-wing template tantrum was over years ago. However, that does square with my understanding of upstate New York politics (I was born there, grew up in Oregon). It’s pretty symbolic right-wing up in there, I believe.

    • I’ve seen a lot more flags since Trump. It makes perfect sense because people don’t support Trump for his policies. It’s a tribal signifier. And that’s what the flag is too.

      I don’t care what people do with the flag. But it annoys me that people who claim to think it is important don’t care enough to do it properly. It’s like they love the military — just not enough to care for individual soldiers. Remember how upset the right was when Rumsfeld said, “You go to war with the army you have”? Neither do I.

  2. Is there a statute of limitations for insurrection? I hope so; I don’t want to think there’s any danger in admitting that yes, I once took part in a flag-burning protest. It was fifty years ago, as the US fought Commies around the world and dissent at home. Back then, I never thought “allegiance to the flag” was that big a deal. I still don’t.

    • There probably is a statute of limitations on flag-burning, so you’re lucky your state governor or county DA didn’t make a political name for themselves by going after flag burners back then (Symbolic anti-left stances by politicians are, of course, unheard of in our time.)

      • According to our official law student, there is a statute of limitations on insurrection but probably not on treason. And that makes as much sense as our legal system generally.

    • That’s a good question about the statute of limitations. The flag is a symbol. Too many people want to claim that burning the flag means you hate America. It doesn’t even mean that! It is usually burned over a specific matter. Does anyone really claim that they hate America when we invade other countries and when we feed the poor? But most of this “patriotism” nonsense is just cultural signifying.

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