Stars and stripes

1. Burn, baby, burn

I remember the one and only time I participated in a flag burning. It was in the early 1990s, shortly after the Supreme Court struck down the Flag Protection Act of 1989. I was living in State College at the time. A fellow line cook at the diner where I worked – we’ll call him Rob – told me he needed some extras for his senior film project, and with my stereotypical hippie appearance at the time (long hair, beard, ratty clothes), I guess I fit the bill. He and his crew were making some sort of documentary that included recording people’s reactions to the public incineration of an American flag. The first time they tried it, he said, the mock demonstration was abruptly terminated when someone stomped out the flames and ran off with the flag.

My role was to act like an interested bystander. We gathered at the time specified – early in the afternoon, I think – right in front of the Allen Street entrance to Penn State’s University Park campus. There were plenty of people on the streets and on campus; it was between classes. Rob showed up with a three-foot-long flag and a can of gasoline. The cameraman and soundman took up their positions, and with very little ceremony, Rob stuck the flag in a little tripod stand, dribbled some gasoline on it, and struck a match. It caught immediately.

In just a few seconds, a hostile crowd formed on the other side of the street and began to make threatening noises. A huge man dressed in camouflage fatigues – an ROTC student, I guess – came racing down Old Main lawn, leaped the wall, kicked over the flag, stomped out the fire, and ran off with flag and stand before anyone had time to react. The crowd cheered. Then suddenly another big guy was looming over me, bellowing something along the lines of, “WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING BURNING OUR COUNTRY’S FLAG?” He was nearly incoherent with rage, but it was hard not to catch his drift. I reacted with great courage and aplomb. “I didn’t burn it!” I said. “WELL, WHO DID?”

Fortunately, a genuine radical, with genuine guts, had showed up on his mountain bike just as the flag burning started. “I helped!” he lied. Much to my relief, the big guy turned his ire on this other longhair, who did his best to engage him in a debate about the First Amendment without getting creamed. Rob was happy. Not only did they get some better footage this time, he said, but it made the results of their first experiment seem like less of a fluke. “People will actually break the law and steal a flag to prevent its owner from burning it,” he marveled.

A better way to put it, I think, is that once aflame, a flag ceases to be someone’s private property and becomes pure symbol. As anthropologist Victor Turner once pointed out (The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual, Cornell University Press, 1967), symbols are both highly charged emotionally and deeply ambiguous. Unlike a sign, which stands for a known thing, a symbol escapes complete comprehension by those who employ it. In a ritual context, Turner maintained, symbols mediate between two poles of meaning: one social and normative, the other sensory and affective. Symbols allow “norms and values… [to] become saturated with emotion, while the gross and basic emotions become ennobled through contact with social values. The irksomeness of moral constraint is transformed into a ‘love of virtue.'”

In the case of flag burning, ambiguity characterizes the ritual as well as the symbol. The U.S. flag code prescribes incineration as the best way to dispose of a flag. (U.S. Code Title 36, Chapter 10, Section 176 (k): “The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.”) Thus, intention is everything; to criminalize flag burning would be tantamount to punishing people for thinking the wrong thoughts. The paradox becomes two-fold, because freedom of expression is so central to our sense of who we are as Americans. This is probably just about the only area where flag burning patriots and flag stealing patriots can find common ground: both would agree on the centrality of freedom.

Regardless of one’s intentions, consigning a flag to flames betrays a passionate engagement with both of Turner’s poles of symbolic meaning. Those of us who are prone to second-guessing – wondering, Pilate-like, “What is freedom?” – have a hard time siding with either brand of patriot. Why do they have to take themselves so damn seriously, anyway? I don’t deny the value of symbols and rituals, but I think it’s essential to keep them in perspective. In a less regulated, more festive context, symbol-laden ritual tends to alternate with bouts of unrestrained laughter. Religion has gone downhill ever since they wrote the clowns out of the myths and out of the ceremonies.

2. Magic carpet

Last Sunday morning my buddy L. and I found ourselves sitting in a parking lot in front of a dollar store somewhere south of Orbisonia, Pennsylvania watching an immense flag rippling in the breeze, backlit by the sun. Neither of us is particularly prone to nationalistic sentiments, and if I had been alone, I’m sure I never would have succumbed to the temptation to pull off the road for the sole purpose of admiring an American flag. But L. had insisted, and since she was driving, that’s what we did – and it was wonderful.

I’ve seen bigger flags, but rarely on short enough flagpoles for one to fully appreciate them. As we watched – completely straight and sober, but feeling more stoned by the minute – the flag seemed intent on demonstrating some elemental principle of travel. It became a country unto itself, complete with its own square of sky. Slow waves of wind beginning out among the stars found endless inventive ways to pass through the striped field, the alternating strips of crop and fallow following the contours of a land continually in flux, like a plowman’s dream of dancing deep in the soil.

Travelers pursue similar fantasies, I think, in regard to the road: that we can dispense with an intermediary and ride it like a magic carpet. Unlike rivers, roads can take us anywhere and everywhere. When we think about individual freedom, we think most often about freedom of movement; riding the parallel highways scored across the American heartland, we dream of blasting off into the stars. It is this fantasy, I think, that has spawned our American love affair with the automobile, with such disastrous consequences for air and weather and unfragmented wildlands.

And as a matter of fact, the flag my friend and I were ogling last Sunday was the mascot of an automobile dealership. The sign said Patriotic Chevrolet. Of course, one can argue about how patriotic the car cult really is. But if Turner is right, that a symbol derives much of its power from hidden or unknown meanings, then presumably all sorts of fantasies contribute to the flag’s powerful hold on our imaginations.

But none of this crossed my mind at the time. I was simply enjoying watching the wind play with a large piece of brightly patterned, translucent fabric. A flag, like any beautiful thing, is always more than mere sign or symbol. Even before it becomes something in which we can invest meaning and emotion, it entrances us by giving shape to moving air – the original and nearly universal template for what we call spirit. A kite can do the same, of course, or a poplar tree, or a field full of swaying grass. They return us to the waters of our birth. We long for immersion in the medium far more than in the message.

3. Going with the flow

Little has been written about the sheer sensuality of a flag in flames. The appeal of a campfire is nearly universal, and what can be more mesmerizing than staring into a fireplace? For any flag with as much red on it as the Stars and Stripes has, “fire” must already be numbered among its covert meanings. Our bellicose national anthem’s central image is of a tattered American flag lit up by a nighttime battle – “the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,” and so forth.

If a flag first attracts and holds our attention because of the way it gives shape to the invisible, all-pervasive flow, setting fire to it makes the connection literal. When the smoke and flames disappear, the flag disappears with them. But has it really been destroyed – or simply translated into the realm of the invisible and the eternal?

Symbols may not permit outright destruction, but they can die from neglect, or suffer slow perversion. The U.S. Code attempts to forestall the latter by, for example, prohibiting the flag’s use in advertising. I wonder what the reaction of that “Patriotic Chevrolet” dealer would’ve been if we had stopped in and informed him that his use of a flag, far from demonstrating patriotism, put him in direct violation of the flag code?

My (in)actions at that mock flag burning years ago were not among my proudest moments, and I did my best to forget the whole incident. But a few months later, I found out from a film-buff friend that I had been the star of Penn State’s annual airing of student films, the Can Film Festival. “That was the funniest thing in the whole festival!” he enthused. “A bunch of us recognized you right away, just standing there off to the side. I was like, ‘Hey, it’s Bonta!’ Then that fuckin’ Nazi got right in your face. I didn’t burn it!” he mimicked. “Everyone just about shit themselves! It was awesome.”

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