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Flag Fetishism & the Cult of the Flag

America's Cult of the Flag and Fetish Behavior Around the American Flag

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Americans’ obsession with the American flag isn’t just an example of patriotism or nationalism — it’s an example of fetishism. Some Americans, at least, have developed a cult around their flag in which that flag is treated almost as it if had supernatural powers, and certainly as if it were more than merely a symbol of America. The flag is treated as if it were America itself — as if it were a substitute for America, such that how you treat it were how you treat America.

What is Fetishism?

The concept of fetishism comes from the anthropology of religion, ironically appropriate given how religious the nature of American nationalism can be. A fetish is a physical object believed to posses supernatural powers. Usually it is a piece of a larger whole to which the piece retains a supernatural connection — thus person’s blood or hair may be believed to retain a connection to that person and even provide power over them.

The concept of fetish has been broadened to other areas. A sexual fetish involves sexual focus on some object or part of a person’s body in lieu of focusing on the whole person. A person with a foot fetish, for example, may focus all of their sexual feelings and attention on a foot as a symbol standing in for the entire person. Karl Marx described the idea of commodity fetishism, a situation where complex social relationships are confused with the commodities that pass through those relationships. Thus a person’s car may be treated as more important than the person himself.

American’s Flag Cult

America’s flag has always been important to Americans, just as other nations’ flags have been important to citizens there. It wasn’t until the Civil War drew to a close, however, that Americans first developed a real cult around the flag. This isn’t surprising because America had been torn apart, and the flag represented unity as opposed to secession, freedom as opposed to slavery, and the need for continuity from the founders down through the present day.

After the war, Americans rallied around the flag like never before — in part, perhaps, because of a perceived need to emphasize America’s heritage and unity over the recent conflict. Veterans were a driving force behind this, joining with organizations of descendants of Revolutionary Era citizens to place flags in all public schools, resurrect the importance of annual Flag Day celebrations, and establish by law a civilian code of conduct for handling the flag. A pledge was even created for people to recite — a pledge that was made not just to America as a nation, but to the flag itself.

Despite their protestations that the flag is supposed to be a symbol of patriotism and national unity, flag fetishists and members of the flag cult invariably used the American flag to serve their political agenda — usually conservative in nature, defending the status quo. During the mid-19th century it was used by nativists to defend a white and ethnically pure nation. More recently, Latinos who marched on behalf of immigrants’ rights were castigated for failing to display the American flag — a sure sign of their lack of patriotism, say critics.

Flag Fetishism

Some Americans’ fetishism for their flag is demonstrated by a near-obsessive, ritualistic manner in which they insist it be treated. Their behavior is more consistent with how people treat religious icons: obsessions about proper folding, never letting it touch the ground, not allowing it to fly after sunset, and so forth. When people treat common objects like this, we say that they suffer from a mental imbalance — obsessive-compulsive disorder, to be exact. When they treat religious objects like this, we simply say they are devout.

What are we to say about someone to treats a flag this way? Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that those who insist on doing so are also often highly religious. Perhaps we are simply witnessing different manifestations of an underlying personality disorder.

Whatever the background reasons, it is clear that laws against flag burning and desecration are products of America’s flag cult and flag fetishism. The flag cult demands that its way of viewing and giving meaning to the flag take precedence over everyone else’s. The flag cult demands that it get to define what the flag means, what true patriotism means, and what America is. Alternative meanings, like those expressed through defacing the flag, are denied validity.

Flag fetishists demand that the flag not be defaced or misused because it is a living thing, imbued with mystical powers and a mystical connection to the nation as a whole. Fetishists demand that everyone treat the flag with the same reverence, respect, and obsessive-compulsion that they do.

A constitutional amendment to ban burning or defacing the American flag would forcibly induct everyone into the Flag Cult and demand that we all become Flag Fetishists.

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