Continued from “The Politics of Blasphemy: Offending Others as Free Speech.”

Burning the American flag was the favored form of protest last week for many Muslim demonstrators in the Middle East responding to Terry Jones’s Quran-burning scheme—a desecration for a desecration, as it were. While Jones himself eventually canceled his plans, his calls for an “International Burn a Koran Day” did result in a small number of lightly reported copycat incidents. Among these, Fred Phelps’s Westboro Baptist Church—a hate group even smaller and more virulent than Jones’ church—reportedly planned to mark September 11 by burning both a Quran and an American flag.

In current US law and jurisprudence, desecrating the flag is considered a form of protected free speech—but this is controversial. Attempts to ban flag burning have been made, so far without success—though in 2005 a flag-protection amendment passed the House, and in 2006 came within a single vote of passing the Senate (at which point it would have gone to the states for ratification). Countries with laws protecting their flags, according to Wikipedia, include Finland, France, Germany, Switzerland, Hong Kong and New Zealand. At least two nations, Denmark and Japan, have laws protecting the flags of other nations, though not their own. Portugal protects both. 

In my “Dude, you HAVE no Quran!” post, a comboxer drew my attention to a famous incident in 1976 (the nation’s bicentennial) involving a pair of protesters at Dodger Stadium trying to burn a flag in the left-center outfield. Chicago Cubs veteran Rick Monday, a former Marine Corps reservist, bolted toward them and snatched away the flag—an exploit that won the Chicago player a standing ovation from the Los Angeles home crowd at his next at-bat. The crowd even burst into a spontaneous rendition of “God Bless America.”

Monday’s act of patriotism has been rewarded with a number of plaques and a medallion from Patricia Kennedy’s Step Up 4 Vets (“Rick Monday, An Unforgettable Act of Valor, An Inspired Act of Patriotism, April 25, 1976”). Only two years ago he was given an American flag flown over Valley Forge National Historical Park in honor of his flag rescue.

Why this celebration of an act of interference with what the Supreme Court has since declared is legally protected free speech? For that matter, an act of theft? (Monday has the flag to this day.)

As a bit of colored fabric, the flag was presumably the private property of the two demonstrators. (Of course they were trespassing, and interfering with the proceedings that the fans were there to observe—but that doesn’t automatically abrogate their property rights, and it isn’t really what people care about anyway.) But as a symbol the flag can be said (in a sense I hope to explore in this and future posts) to belong to all Americans.

Of course the flag is a symbol that can be and has been misused—for example, draped over an unbalanced patriotism that ignores or excuses the crimes and offenses of one’s country past and present. Such misuse does not, however, make the flag the special property or symbol of the misusers or of their unbalanced patriotism. Those who oppose the agendas of unbalanced patriotism, who are most sharply aware of problems in their country’s present or past, may well oppose them in the name of a balanced patriotism—as e.g. Edith Stein and Sophie Scholl opposed the Nazi regime precisely as patriotic Germans.

A balanced awareness of one’s country’s offenses does not preclude love and loyalty toward one’s homeland, filial piety toward previous generations, gratitude for their sacrifices and accomplishments, and identification with the nation’s best ideals and aspirations, however deficient the reality may be. This is the stuff of balanced patriotism; and this is what the flag as a symbol represents to balanced patriots.

This is why flag burning (as a symbolic protest, not to dispose honorably of a worn flag) is such a provocative act. The flag burners at Dodger Stadium might have been up in arms about any number of things (the recently ended Vietnam war, Richard Nixon, what have you); but one cannot burn or otherwise desecrate the misuse of a flag, or “what a flag symbolizes to me.” One can only burn the flag itself—and to deface or desecrate a symbol in public is itself a symbolic or ritual act, one that invokes the full public significance of the symbol in question.

More to come.