Flag Desecration’s New Home?
The first time I saw Colin Kaepernick take a knee during the national anthem, I was blasé. I am old enough to remember Americans raging about the propriety of flag burning before the Supreme Court constitutionally sanctioned the practice, so a protest to reduce police brutality without actually destroying a flag seemed quaint by comparison.
Plus, symbols are empty cups we pour our individual feelings and experiences into. A mother who saw a flag draped over her son’s casket before it was folded and handed to her on behalf of a grateful nation may see the embodiment of her offspring in every American flag.
But another mother may see every flag as the embodiment of an officer who unjustifiably killed her son under the color of law. I can envision many others’ cups filled to the brim with similar injustices.
How can I assuage one form of anguish by forcing people to act like others don’t exist?
Further, while I try to moor my principles independently from what others think, it is hard to take Kaepernick’s opponents seriously because they exhibit selective indignation. The U.S. code on our flag, specifically, 4 U.S.C. § 8(c) says “The flag should never be carried flat or horizontally, but always aloft and free.”
Check this photo from the last Superbowl.
Also, a quick shoutout to the sanctimonious. If the Monday Night Football camera were two-way, would we see you standing at your home during the anthem? No? Me, neither.
Plus, while I do stand during the anthem, I’m suspicious of patriotic appeals or forcing people to make inauthentic gestures. Mark Twain, presciently foretold 2020 when he noted, “Patriotism is usually the refuge of a scoundrel. He is the man who talks the loudest.” An equally iconic American politico — Jesse “the Body” Ventura — added, “Patriotism is voluntary.” Compelled standing cheapens the gesture, and seeing the Star-Spangled Banner yet wave doesn’t change this idea for me.
So imagine my astonishment when, during the recent protests, I had a visceral and angry reaction when I saw an act of American flag desecration.
Somehow I had never seen this flag, and it rubbed a raw nerve.
I know whether one takes umbrage to any art or symbol is subjective and complicated, requiring an assessment of visual content, context, and subtext.
For example, here is a cartoon frog. Though not artistically sophisticated, nothing is visually insulting unless you’re an evangelical turned off by his abject hedonism.
But add a context, such as that frog on a sign during a conservative rally in Berkley. Anyone aware of the multi-year rhetorical slugfest over whether only Black or All Lives Matter knows the frog — in this context — is dropping amphibious turds on BLM.
Next, add the subtext that the Jewish Anti-Defamation League ID’d this frog, Pepé, as a hate symbol because he’s so prominent in ultra-white nationalist and white supremacist memes. Something seemingly kid-friendly in the abstract becomes horrifically virulent.
The converse can be true.
The first time I saw “Beware,” I was like, “What the hell?!? This better be from the 1920’s.”
While this painting is far from universally acclaimed, recognizing its creator as African-American artist Michael Ray Charles and seeing his exhibitions in their entirety moderates its offensiveness because motivation is always pertinent.
If you further know the subtext of Charles’ work — that he is slapping down an American history replete with lampooning images of black people — you realize how easy it is for something facially vile to become instructive.
I wanted to be as thoughtful in dissecting the “thin blue line” flag to see whether my initial impression of the visual elements would warrant recalibration based on context or subtext.
What I see when I look at the Thin Blue Line flag…
Desolation. If I had never seen an American flag, I would still see a lifeless and colorless image, save for one stripe.
But, to add context, I know our national symbol is a vibrant amalgam of red, white, and blue, and it’s gone here. Further, I know that black and white are racial descriptors and particularly relevant ones in the context of policing and our instant controversies. Whether intentional or not, this flag is tone-deaf.
I reviewed the explanation of the flag’s creator, who said the black line above the blue stripe “represents society, order, and peace,” and the black line below “represents crime, anarchy, and chaos. The blue stripe running between them is law enforcement, separating the two, keeping crime separated from society.”
The creator adds:
“When placed in the context of a flag, there is an added element of patriotism and…the stars symbolize the citizens who benefit from the sacrifice of our heroes on the line made to protect them. The Thin Blue Line Flag is flown as a matter of principle to show support for the thankless work that they do.”
Yes, police do thankless work, and I would not be an officer for any sum. I sympathize with officers who really are working to change the culture of policing internally who bear the brunt of community anger right now. But nothing in the flag description contradicts my visual impression.
It reinforces it. Respectfully, this flag is the embodiment of everything wrong with the policing profession today.
No matter how much you value officers or their sacrifices for America, NOBODY gets to stand greater than the sum of our parts on the American flag. The Great Seal of America says E Pluribus Unum — “Out of many, one.” It does not say “We’re the ones who make this happen for all of you, so give us our due, or we’ll just let you fall back into chaos.” Also, if the stars now represent citizens and not states, NOBODY gets to sully the sky those citizens shine in a land “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” except for polluters who are friends of EPA Secretary Andrew Wheeler.
In fairness to Thin Blue Line USA, they sell a second flag that doesn’t bother me at all visually, though the context of all of us needing to say “thank you” regularly to avoid The Purge persists and is kind of messed up.
I’ve also learned they have versions that add a red stripe for firefighters and a green one for service members, and my critique is the same. Nope.
And what of the subtext for the Thin Blue Line flag? A staggering number of the single blue line flags showed up at white nationalist and white supremacist rallies. To its credit, Thin Blue Line USA denounced the use of their flag for such purposes, and I give them benefit of the doubt.
But I also gave benefit of the doubt to Matt Furie, who created Pepé, when he said he didn’t sanction his creation’s use by white supremacists. Despite lawsuits against Stormfront and other racist websites to stop copyright infringement, Furie ultimately had one option: kill off Pepé.
Visually, contextually, and sub-textually, the Thin Blue Line flag is problematic, which is why Germantown, Maryland banned it from its police departments.
Maybe we don’t treat it like the Confederate flag, but if Colin Kaepernick on his knee bothered you and seeing Old Glory sapped OF its glory doesn’t, you might reevaluate whether you’re truly patriotic or caught up in something that is definitely as black and white as black and white.