Saturday, September 13, 2003


If only there were an icon for the U.S. Constitution that could serve as an alternative for the U.S. flag.

Use of the flag and flag symbols, visual shorthand for a claim of patriotism, blossomed after 9/11 and again with the recent war in Iraq, just as it does in every such situation. But since Americans aren’t known for restraint, many people using one flag were likely to supplement it with another: two stickers or more for the car, and possibly one for each side to stick up from the window; one on the front-lawn pole and one to hang from the porch.

In emergencies such as 9/11, the flag becomes a way to claim unity, and emergencies seem no time to question authority. But when the authorities summon a rallying in a nonemergency, such as the Iraq war, the flag becomes divisive. Those who buy the crisis and believe there’s an emergency will respond with a flag, or two, or more. Those skeptical of the crisis see no reason to rally and don’t increase their flag-based consumerism.

And suddenly the flag-wavers are the patriots -- the more flags, the more patriotic -- and those without flags are, well, not on the team.

The flags become a challenge, and one without an answer. It’s like the political candidates who boast they are pro-family: Who isn’t? Of course, it’s even more like the people who boast of being pro-troops, and so recently held Iraq-war rallies to “show support for the troops”: Who didn’t support the troops, those largely underclass kids who signed up in peacetime and are required to follow orders, whether it be to drop and give someone 20 or go to Iraq and battle the Republican Guard?

But with the dramatizing of support for the troops, suddenly anyone who didn’t follow suit, by default, must not have been supportive. With the glitzing up of homes, cars or chests with American flags, anyone who doesn’t, by default, must not be patriotic. Not displaying support of the nation in manufacturing and prosecuting a war becomes, in this visual shorthand, not supporting the nation.

So, suddenly, wearing or displaying an American flag assures the world of support for the war. Since there’s no obvious way to modify the flag icon to transmit love of country without support for an individual action, anyone feeling that way is presented with a choice of involuntary messages, neither appropriate to their emotion. The obvious choice, an American flag flying upside down -- which is supposed to signal distress -- is invariably seen as unpatriotic, as inflammatory as the burning of an American flag.

The choice of colors doesn’t work, either. While red ribbons became recognized as support for fighting AIDS, pink ribbons with breast cancer, yellow for anyone whose safe return is desired, there is no color scheme that can be applied to the American flag that universally suggests patriotism without blind support for whatever crisis it flies in. Indeed, since the flag is synonymous with its colors, replacing them couldn’t help but be an ambiguous commentary. Red is associated with blood, but it’s already on the flag. White is associated with peace, but it, too, is already there. Black is associated with death, so its use would be negative, not positive. Green is environmental. Yellow speaks of cowardice (despite its use in the ribbons). Pink and purple are seen as gay, or at least cute. Orange is, well, meaningless.

The flag has been de facto hijacked by the unquestioning patriot.

The skeptical ones, then, are left with the Constitution, which is not a symbol at all, but a living list of rights and endorsements of policy. It doesn’t say “My country, right or wrong,” or “America: Love it or leave it.” It tells Americans to check and balance, to vote their conscience, speak their mind, resist dogma, assert their rights.

More than a symbol of America, it actually is America. But such complexity is difficult to capture in an icon.

That’s a pity. Constitution flags, lapel pins, T-shirts and bumper stickers are sorely needed as an alternative for those alienated in the semiotic debate dominating short-attention-span America.

It would also be a rebuke to those who claim the high ground by behaving as though our rights are wrong -- a rebuke just as is the Constitition itself.

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