It's Super Bowl Sunday and, though I will not see the event, I imagine the scene will cause commentators and journalists to parade statements like, "I've seen more flags flown in this stadium than thrown on the field!" Perhaps Arthur Anderson will supply endless amounts of miniature American flags--just to clarify where they stand (besides in the rubble of Enron)--and Mariah Carey, freshly recovered from her own collapse, will ornament the Star Spangled Banner with endlessly cascading high notes. In the midst of this united America, I realize sadly that my own favorite ceremony, the burning of the American flag, will be absent.
Even in reports from the current demonstrations against the World Economic Forum meetings in New York City, I have yet to hear of any flags torched. The absence is understandable, given that in the current setting the "heroic" response of police to such a display may be far worse than one might expect at other points in recent history. In fact, I find myself somewhat nervous about this column being published, and by the possible repercussions of writing about flag burning without labeling it satire or parody.
One of the big things that has changed since the tragedy of September 11th is that left/liberals can now fly the American flag without the fear of being labeled sell outs or posers. I find no comfort in this; I have no desire to "reclaim" the flag for liberalism, and I have little patience for those who do.
I was certainly horrified at the events of September 11th, but I never seemed as disturbed as anyone I knew. In trying to understand my feelings I realized that since my first involvement in the movement against U.S. intervention in Central America in the 1980s, I have lived in the context of death squads and the disappearance of activists, of villages, of whole ways of life. It was during that time that I made my first piece of art defaming the American flag: it had a swastika over the stars and the slogan "No Nationalism" over the bars.
Since September 11th I've read many columns explaining why people like Jim Hightower fly their American flag high, the reasons usually being that the flag represents so many good things about America. But I have yet to dig into any period of American history without finding real nastiness at every turn. And I am upset that the massacres of Native Americans, the horrors of the slave trade, and other such events have been normalized to the degree that commentators can claim the flag stands for the good America not the bad America, rather than for the whole catastrophic package.
But I do not take the simplistic stance that America is always wrong and whoever we are against is always right. My problem with patriotism is that it draws the wrong boundaries and ties me to people who embody evil while separating me from those who share my interests. And when I think of the good that Americans do and have done, I feel a connection not to a national entity but to all those people around the world who exemplify the magic and mystery of being human.
For my part, I haven't burned nearly as many flags as I'd like. In addition to art that defaced flags, I've also burned flags in performance. Around 1990, when various disturbed groups and individuals were promoting an amendment to protect the flag, I performed in an anticensorship piece with The High Risk Group of San Francisco that included my own contribution of burning a tiny American flag. I remember buying a bunch in a department store and the woman at the counter saying, "you can buy those as long as you're not going to burn them." We laughed together as she apologized and rang me up.
Burning those little flags always gave me a thrill and I'm thrilled when I see flags burned at demonstrations. Perhaps it would be different if I felt some sense of patriotism, of pride, of inclusion in the "we" that came together after September 11th. But that patriotism is not there and I still do not understand being proud of something I did so little to create. My patriotic urges and sense of unity were destroyed way back when I experienced the hypocrisy of my church elders, the emotional, intellectual and physical violence of the educational system, and the political realities of the Vietnam War and Watergate.
I will still burn the flag, but not because it is my right or because it shocks people. I will still burn the flag because fools take it up to support their foolishness, because murderers take it up to defend their acts of murder, because caring people take it up to justify their complicity in a destructive system. Even more, I will still burn the flag because doing so will shed light in the darkness and bring a bit of warmth to a cold, cruel world.