The current brouhaha in the Confederate South over the Confederate Battle Flag attests to the ferocity of our beliefs in the flags of our fathers, right or wrong the sentiments. The strongest arguments in defense of the right to display the Confederate Battle Flag are those who defend it on grounds of “heritage” dismissing the flag’s symbolism as a banner of slavery and its concomitant of discrimination, dismissing the grievous burden of the flag’s symbolism for contemporary African Americans.
Originating on battlefields as a means of identification, national flags have come a long way since their bloody conception. Flying in courthouses, classrooms, and fire stations they typically hold symbolic significance for the nation and have complex meanings ingrained into their designs.
Posted by David Pegg
Over history many flags have come into existence with brutal and painful legacies. One of those flags was the flag of the Spanish Inquisition which spread dread over the whole of the Spanish empire. The flag of the Berber Moorish occupation of Spain fueled the intensity of la reconquista (the Reconquest) led by Rodrigo, El Cid, and the expulsion of the Berber Spanish Inquisition Moors (los Moriscos) from Spain on January 2, 1492 after 781 years in Spain—the same year as the expulsion of the Jews (los Sefarditos/Sephardim) from Spain after some 1600 years (since 202 BCE) in Sepharad (Jewish name for Spain).
In the late 19th century the Hungarian flag was so hated in Zagreb that it caused serious internal strife. In the 20th century, the Nazi flag and the flag of the Soviet Union are flags with painful legacies, as were the flags of World War II Japan and Communist China. In more recent times the flags of Middle East countries have emerged with apodictic codes.
In 1989 the Supreme Court struck down all U.S. laws banning flag desecration, including flag burning. I personally would not burn an American flag, not even a small paper one. However, as a Marine Corps veteran of World War II, with Air Force service during the Korean Conflict, and the early Vietnam Era, I confess I’m troubled when I see desecration of the American Flag, not because it is sacrosanct.
I’m equally troubled when I see American flags and fiery crosses on lawns of black domiciles in communities where that kind of racial remonstrance should have been channeled long ago into more constructive venues. African Americans too have fought and died for flag and country.
Of the 16 million American men and women in uniform during World War II, more than half-a-million American Hispanics (principally Mexican Americans and detachments of Puerto Ricans) served in the armed forces of the United States in defense of the American flag that brought them into the American union by fiat as a conquered people.
Is this the country whose “flag is a symbol of freedom, of equal opportunity, of religious tolerance, and of good will for other people who share our dreams,” as the American Legion noted in its “Stand by Our flag” series? Is this the country where black youths are killed for “trespassing” white neighborhoods? Is this the country where synagogues are still desecrated and American Hispanics of the Southwest are still viewed as strangers in their own land? Unfortunately it is.
What troubles me about a “Flag Burning Amendment” to the U.S. Constitution is the message it sends to forces that need no more encouragement for their philosophy of “My Country, Right or Wrong.” The most recent flag desecration amendment (June 27, 2006) failed by one vote. Reports by the National Institute Against Prejudice and Violence have indicated an increase of racial violence in the United States, not a diminution.
Indeed, the flag is “a symbol of freedom, of equal opportunity, of religious tolerance, and of good will toward other people.” It’s precisely that—a symbol for those aspirations; not their reality. That’s also what bothers me about a “Flag Amendment”—that by its passage, Americans will believe that what the flag symbolizes is already a fact, not aspirations devoutly to be wished.
I’m proud of the American flag and what it symbolizes, knowing full well how much remains to be done toward achieving those aspirations. A flag desecration amendment will not make me any prouder.
And though I think the American flag’s not for burning, I’m not proud of where “Old Glory” has been taken to by American zealots in their quest for personal power and aggrandizement in the name of nationalism—Wounded Knee was not this country’s finest hour. I’m not proud of those whom the flag has draped in the name of patriotism—especially those Americans who herded Japanese Americans into concentration camps during World War II. I’m not proud of those who in the name of the flag denied burial to a Mexican American World War II veteran in the Three Rivers, Texas, cemetery—nor of the role American veterans organizations played in that disgraceful episode. This epitomizes the flag as the last refuge for scoundrels.
I’m not proud of the role the flag was pressed into in pursuit of American Manifest Destiny—the U.S. War against Mexico (1846-1848) by which half of Mexico‘s territory and its citizens there-on were annexed as spoils of war by the United States, a war considered immoral by President Grant, Walt Whitman, and Thoreau. And I’m not proud of the way the flag was used in the U.S. War with Spain (1898)—one of our staunchest allies during the Revolutionary War (1776-1781). Yet American Hispanics of Mexican descent are reviled in public today a la Donald Trump, while we are friends with Germany, Russia, and Vietnam — all former enemies.
But all this is history. I can be proud of flag and country for all its good; and critical of its wrongs. For this too is the meaning of America—being critical of its behavior when in the wrong. In the final analysis, burning “a flag” is not burning “the flag,” as Robert Bork would have us believe in his Flag Amendment testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1989. The strength of a country lies in the strength of its people. Germans were not made stronger because of the “swastika”—they were made stronger despite that symbol.
I know symbols are important to people. But symbols are not reality, just as Alfred Korzybsi reminded us that “the map is not the territory.” I’m proud of the Mexican flag as a symbol of my heritage but not proud of it as a symbol of oppression against its indigenous citizens. In Mexico, the French flag is a symbol of oppression and occupation by one of the 19th century’s most powerful military nations. France occupied Mexico by military force from 1862 to 1867 with Maximilian of Austria and his wife Carlota as emperor and empress of the “Cactus Throne” as described by some historians
History is replete with flags of intolerance and injustice. In this vein, the English flag was once a symbol of oppression and reviled by Americans for many years, long after the American War for Independence, that revulsion made more acute by the English assault on the United States in 1812, three decades after the Treaty of Paris marking the end of the American War for Independence.
After 1848 the American flag was anathema for Mexicans who came with the Mexican territory ripped from Mexico as booty of the U.S.-Mexico War (1846-1848), a war inspired by Manifest Destiny. How many Mexicans came with the territory of the Mexican Cession is not known. Carey McWilliams, the American historian and long-time Editor of The Nation magazine pegged the number at 75,000. More assertive Chicano historians calculate the number at 3 million.
That number squares with the population density of Mexicans at the time in urban set-tings like San Antonio, El Paso, Santa Fe, the San Luis Valley of Colorado, Tucson, San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Monterrey, San Francisco and the hundreds of hamlets dotting the landscape between these aforementioned urban centers of Mexican populations.
The black flag of piracy was once the most feared flag of the seas, although it was often referred to as “the Jolly Roger.” Concerted prosecution of piracy vitiated fear of that flag. Though erroneously attributed to Jefferson as a stance against the demand for tribute by the Barbary Pirates– “Millions for defense but not one cent for tribute”—the declaration as national policy certainly asserted unequivocally America’s attitude toward piracy.
The more current black flag of ISIS emerges as a dreaded flag because of the atrocities committed by its insurgents.
In modern times, the most reviled flags of nations have been the Nazi flag of the German Third Reich, the Rising Sun flag of the Japanese empire, and Mussolini’s tricolor flag of Italy during his dictatorial reign. Since World War II other reviled flags have emerged—the Viet Cong flag, for one—though less reviled than the flags cited for World War II.
The red flag of Kosovo is reviled by many Serbs who suffered unduly under its aegis, especially Kosovo Albanians. Sectarian friction hinders symbolic progress in Kosovo toward a national flag of unity. At this point in time that unity seems doubtful.
Despite efforts at Arab unity, the white flag of Islamic conquest is replaced in the field by the black flag (rayah—mother of the war) of the Emir of the army. In Islam, the Khalifah is the leader of the army. All of the flag protocols are prescribed by Shariah law, including the black flag of Jihad.
As symbolic communication, flags convey powerful semiotic messages of purpose and identity. Flags can elicit joy or fear depending on the context and the moment. The psychology of flags can lead us to intent and purpose. “National symbols like flags are a means of uniting people under a shared banner. . . Flags are harbingers of values as much as they are symbols in and of themselves” (“Our Flag” http://www.syriauntold. com/en/ 2014/12/flag-attempt-retrieve-symbol-uprising/). The colors of flags have widely recognized meanings and convey powerful messages as well.
In Conflict Theory, the macro-dynamics of flags are reinforced by their presence on the field of battle and in the halls of negotiations after the battles (Obershall). La bandera roja (the red flag) of the communist sendero luminoso insurgency in Nicaragua during the 60s played a major role in the communist victory there.
In the current Ukranian conflict, President Petro Poroshenko declared, “The state flag of Ukraine is proudly waving over the city, which militants thought was their impregnable fortress. It’s not a complete victory and it’s not a time for fireworks, but clearing Slovyansk of extremely well-armed bandits has a very symbolic meaning. This is a turning point in fighting militants for the territorial integrity of Ukraine” (Herszenhorn). It was a fight highlighted by the legitimate flag of the Ukraine.
For Flag Day and National Flag Week this year, this was President Barack Obama’s message:
For more than 200 years, the American flag has been a proud symbol of the people of our Nation and the values for which we stand. In hues of red, white, and blue, it reflects centuries of struggle and sacrifice — a constant reminder of our journey from 13 colonies to a Nation united in freedom and liberty, and of the patriots and pioneers who fought for these ideals at home and abroad. On Flag Day and during National Flag Week, we pay tribute to this banner of hope and opportunity, and we celebrate the story of progress it represents.
A Proclamation by the President of the United States, 2015
After more than half a century, the Cuban flag was raised at the site of the Cuban Embassy in Washington, DC, a flag reviled for its communist affiliation. Cuban Americans are demonstrably distressed by this turn of events in light of Cuba’s history with human rights, despite American diplomatic relations with communist countries that have no better track records than Cuba.
In the Library at Western New Mexico University where I’m Scholar in Residence, the flags of our international students are hung in the Grand Gallery of the University Library. They are meant to be not only inspirational for our international students but instructional for our American students, many of whom can identify most if not all of the international flags on display in the Library’s Great Room
Flags are intended to raise the patriotic spirits of a people and the psychological value
of victory in conflicts. Most often they’re successful; sometimes they’re not. It all depends.
Copyrighted 2015 by Philip de Ortego y Gasca. American flag photo and UFW flag photo coprighted by Barrio Dog Productions, Inc. All other photos in the public domain.
WORKS CITED AND CONSULTED
Brokaw, Tom. The Greatest Generation. New York: Random House, 1998.
CNN. Com, Flag-burning amendment fails by a vote, June 28, 2006.
Herszenhorn, David M., “Pro-Russian Fighters Routed From Stronghold, Ukraine Says,”New York Times. July 5, 2014
Kamen, Henry, The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision, Yale University Press, 1997.
Korzybski, Alfred, Collected Writings 1920-1950, Institute of General Semantics, 1990.
Obershall, A. “Conflict Theory” in K.T. Leicht and J.C. Jenkins (eds.), Handbook of
Politics: State and Society in Global Perspective, Handbooks of Sociology and Social
Research, © Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010, Chapter 10.
Obama, Barack, Presidential Proclamation — Flag Day and National Flag Week, 2015
Ortego y Gasca, Felipe de, “The Ephemeral Crown: The French in Mexico 1862-1867, Presented as an Hispanic Heritage Lecture, The Hispanic Division of the Library of Congress, September 22, 1983
Ortego y Gasca, Felipe de. “This Flag’s not for Burning”Published originally as “Old Glory is a Symbol, not Freedom Itself,” Politico: Forum for Latino Politics, 1:14, December 1, 1997; posted on http://groups.yahoo.com/group/lulac-mn/message/9452, June 15, 2011.
“Our Flag: An Attempt to Retrieve the Symbol of the Uprising,” Syria Untold, December 24, 2014. Retrieve from ”(http://www.syriauntold.com/en/ 2014/12/flag-attempt-retrieve-symbol-uprising/).
Pegg, David, “25 National Flags And Their Meanings, People and Politics,” posted on January 28, 2013
The Longoria Affair <https://www.utmb.edu/drgarcia/longoria.htm>