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Meaning of the American Flag

Bans on Flag Burning are an Attempt to Copyright the Meaning of the Flag

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One vitally important issue in the debate over burning and desecrating the American flag tends to be ignored: what exactly does the American flag mean and why? The American flag is a symbol, which is to say that it represents America itself. Therefore, the question of what the American flag means is necessarily a question about what America means and what it stands for.

This isn’t a peripheral matter but instead brings together just about every other aspect of political, legal, and social debate. When self-proclaimed “defenders” of the flag talk about their attempts to prohibit the physical desecration of the American flag, they typically make reference to the idea that the flag is a symbol of national unity, freedom, or patriotism, and therefore that the government has an obligation to protect it.

The ironic truth is that the very act of burning the American flag is itself a statement about what the flag means and what America stands for. Although protesters who burn the flag certainly undermine traditional concepts of national unity or patriotism, is that what they are really attacking? Not necessarily.

Typically, flag burners believe very fervently in freedom and liberty, and in fact are charging the nation with “betraying its ideals” as the burners understand them. To the protesters, the flag has come to represent what the nation has done wrong and how it has become hypocritical. By burning it, they may be attempting to burn away the nation’s sins and call attention to changes which they think must be made, or they may simply be trying to highlight all the negative things which have collected on the flag and on America.

Whatever their intent, their actions are inextricably tied to what they perceive the flag to mean and what their perceive America as standing for — for good and for ill. The act of burning or desecrating an American flag simply cannot separated from the message being communicated, and that, in turn, cannot be separated from how people perceive the symbolism of the American flag.

Those in authority reject the idea that the flag carries negative meanings, however, and insist that their meanings are what must take precedence. By attempting to prohibit flag burning, they are in essence using the law to enforce their interpretations of the flag and require everyone else to abide by them. In a way, they are attempting to create a copyright on the symbol and/or institution.

Most Americans invest a lot of very personal meaning in their flag, and when someone attacks it, they tend to get emotional about it. It’s fair that the government would encourage people to invest particular meanings in the flag, but that’s quite different from trying to enforce particular meanings.

When those in power try to create a single accepted meaning and use the law to copyright the symbol itself, they are essentially forcing everyone else to become political and social outsiders. Bans on flag burning and desecration are a way to avoid discussing what the flag as a symbol means and what America itself should stand for. They are saying to everyone: “This is our country. This is our flag. If you don’t adopt our meanings, you don’t belong.”

Of course, it is precisely such attitudes which dissidents tend to protest. If someone burns or desecrates an American flag in order to protest the government or express opposition to something about America, there’s a good chance that they are expressing opposition to attitudes like the ones described above. As a consequence, the act of imposing bans on burning or desecrating the American flag will probably have the opposite effect of what supporters intend: rather than encouraging people to see America and the flag in their preferred way, people will come to invest them with even more negative interpretations. This is why bans on flag burning only serve to encourage flag burning.

Symbols have meanings and we can’t debate how we treat symbols while ignoring the underlying disagreements about what those meanings are and what they should be. Those inclined to support bans on flag burning and desecration should engage the debate fairly by dealing with the substantive issues rather than undercutting it by denying people the right to express what their understandings of the flag and America are. If a person can express positive meanings of the flag by waving it, others can express negative meanings by burning it.

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