Burn the Flag! rev. 04.16.2009 Back to Lessons

From Carlton Vogt's Enterprise Ethics, Volume 3, Number 17, July 1, 2005

Symbols and Reality

When you confuse the two, you've gone off the track

I want to tell you a story. This is a story about a man -- a man who loved his mother. He loved her very much. He loved her so much, in fact, that he commissioned a very expensive oil painting of her and he hung it in his living room.

Among his greatest fears, however, was that something would happen to this cherished painting of his cherished mother. So, he installed the latest climate-control equipment to keep the temperature and humidity at constant and acceptable levels, similar to what museums do. He eliminated direct sunlight and he installed the latest filtration devices. All to honor his mother.

He commissioned another painting of her, and another, until the room was filled with expensive, and well-protected, oil paintings of his cherished mother.

Then, one day the unthinkable happened. A great storm hit. The rain and wind howled outside, and the air was filled with dirt, dust, and debris. The power threatened to go off, and he checked his generators to make sure the climate-control equipment inside would continue to work.

Suddenly, there was a knock at the door. Who in the world would be out in this violent weather? The man went to the closed and shuttered door, and a woman outside explained that her house had been damaged in the storm and she was seeking refuge with him.

The man who loved his mother very much considered her request, but his fear for the paintings finally won out. He told the woman that he couldn't risk the damage and that she would have to go away. Sadly she did. Unfortunately, the woman was his mother.

What a foolish man, I hear many of you say. What a stupid story, I hear others of you say. No one would do anything like that. What person who loved his mother would turn her out into the storm just to protect a picture of her?

The problem with the fictional man in my story is that he has become so fixated on the symbol of his love for his mother -- the paintings -- that he ended up ignoring the reality -- the important thing that the paintings represented.

Those of you who think the man, or the story, foolish would, on one hand, be right. On the other hand, there are a group of people proposing just such a thing today. They want to elevate the symbol of something to a more important place than the reality that the symbol represents.

And for those who aren't very adept at parables, I'll cut to the chase. I'm talking about the sadly recurring attempt in Congress to weaken the Constitution in order to "protect" the flag. The idea of a flag-protection amendment has made its regular appearance. Usually, it gains some traction as political opportunists hop on the bandwagon to huff and puff "patriotic" folderol, but cooler heads prevail and it slips into oblivion, just waiting for the opportunists to pounce on it again. However, in the current jingoistic and hyper-nationalistic climate, there's a chance it might pass.

Since I don't have any current plans to burn -- or otherwise abuse -- a flag, it's really no skin off my nose. But I am concerned that such an amendment, no matter how infrequently used, diminishes the Constitution. And that bothers the heck out of me.

The problems with such an amendment are many. I don't think it will address the real abuse of the flag. For example, automobile dealers who skirt local signage laws by erecting gigantic American flags or at least a small sea of flags as a way to call attention to their business. They then accuse anyone who objects of being anti-American.

And such an amendment probably won't stop those poor souls who display their "patriotism" by dressing from head to toe in flag-related accessories, like the woman I saw recently at a Newt Gingrich appearance. She had on a flag sun visor, flag earrings, a flag blouse, flag shorts (apparently so she could honor her country by squashing her derriere on the stars and stripes), flag shoes and -- just in case you missed the point -- a giant flag pin.

The unintended consequence of a flag amendment would be that it would give flag-burning -- now an extremely rare occurrence -- greater impact as a political act, meaning that we would probably see more flag burning and not less as a result of any amendment.

However, even leaving aside those two objections, to weaken the constitution as a way of "protecting" the flag is a textbook case of elevating the symbol over reality, and damaging the reality in the process.

Reality is important. Symbols are important only when the reality to which they point remains intact. When you confuse the two, you've already gone off the track, like the man to turned away his mother in the storm merely to protect her picture.

I thought July 4th would be a good time to mention this.

Comments, questions, or complaints? Go to the Enterprise Ethics Web site.

Copyright 2005 Carlton Vogt

From The Donella Meadows Archive: Voice of a Global Citizen:

"Sometimes I wish everyone would read a book I use when I'm educating future citizens:
S.I. Hayakawa's Language in Thought and Action.

"The symbol is NOT the thing symbolized," thunders Hayakawa. "
The map is NOT the territory. The word is NOT the thing."


"In one way or another, we are all like the student who cheats on his exams in order to make Phi Beta Kappa; it is so much more important to have the symbol than the things it stands for."

That is the best explanation I have heard for how a president could be willing to REQUIRE people to say the Pledge of Allegiance and to PUNISH people for burning the flag -- to use the force of government to strengthen the SYMBOLS of freedom while undermining real freedom -- and how the people could actually be willing to let him do it."

[© Copyright Sustainability Institute]

Please give these comments some serious thought before you do or think something really stupid abour flags and burning and even discussion of burning flags.

One of the most detrimental things that can happen to the people of a nation is nationalism blindly running out of control and away from thought and reason.

and, from The EDGE Newspaper Archives: Principle #4: The Map is Not the Territory: Mind Chatter | by Bill Harris ... A series of Nine Principles for Conscious Living:

"You can't go camping on the little triangles that represent mountains.
And you can't get wet or go water skiing in the blue areas that represent oceans, lakes and rivers.

The map is not the territory. It's not meant to be. It's just a representation of reality -- not reality itself.

So, don't confuse the map with the territory. Don't confuse "burning a flag" with "damaging a country or its people." It's a symbol, whether you like it or not; whether you believe it or not. If you outlaw flag-burning, you're greasing the slippery slope toward outlawing virtually all other kinds of free speech. Flag-burning is free speech. Read the First Amendment again.

Even the San Francisco Chronicle chimed in.... "Flag desecration or free speech?", Monday, July 4, 2005

First rev: 06.03.2005