Love of Stars and Stripes Far from Universal

Brooklyn Demme

In “Obies Should Rally to Restore Sanctity” [The Oberlin Review, Dec. 2, 2011], staff writer Andrew Lipian discusses the vandalism enacted against the Sept. 11 memorial erected by the Oberlin Republicans and Libertarians. First of all, I deeply sympathize with his belief that memorials are sacred and should not be muted, disabled or disrespected. Still, the article is embedded with ideological assumptions which make dissenting, patriotic citizens like me resent our flag and what it stands for.

He expresses how this act of vandalism is “still fresh, just like the memory of the victims’ deaths at the hands of Islamic extremists” — but was the memorial meant to commemorate the 2,976 people killed in the attacks, or just the 2,740 U.S. citizens? What about the innumerable innocent civilians classified as “Islamic terrorists” who, to this day, continue to die from torture and neglect in invisible prisons around the globe? What about all of our brothers and sisters who’ve been killed in Iraq, Afghanistan and across the global South since Sept. 11? (Estimates of Iraqi civilian deaths range from over 100,000 to over 1,000,000.) Do the personal forces of nationalism and xenophobia persevere after death? Since Sept. 11, our national border enforcement strategy has openly and directly relied on human death as a deterrent to other Latin American economic refugees — can we understand and mourn these men, women and children as victims of the same attacks? At the end of the day, fellow citizens and less entitled foreigners alike are brutalized, imprisoned, sexually assaulted, exploited and silenced by agents of the same Stars and Stripes.

This is why I take issue with the following phrase: “One unquestionable fact is that the memorial [four American flags] was not a political statement.” Far from unquestionable, I interpret such a display as unambiguously and necessarily political. What does the flag represent to you? The greatest educational disparities in the “developed” world? More prisoners without citizens’ rights than there were slaves in the antebellum South? Or the power and privilege of the greatest nation on Earth? Again, I am not advocating or justifying the disrespect shown to the memorial your organization constructed. I’m just saying: The American flag is a symbol of enormous charge, and cannot be displayed or interpreted as neutral. How, for example, should a Lakota person respond to America’s sacred symbols? Mount Rushmore embodies the devastation (vandalism) of a sacred spiritual space (memorial), and celebrates the genocide and vandalism of this continent, both in one fell swoop.

Lipian encourages readers to imagine how our campus would have reacted to another hypothetical instance of violence: “If the vandalized banner had been a rainbow-striped pride flag rather than the Stars and Stripes, the resulting firestorm of rage from the student body would have consumed the culprits and the administration like a medieval witch hunt.” I agree with the analysis and am eternally grateful for a community which challenges some of the hateful male supremacy and trans/homophobia pervasive on this planet.

I do, however, think it is an uncouth comparison. It’s interesting that Lipian conjures the image of a witch hunt, because witch-hunting, i.e. lynch ideology, has historically led to the imperative of LGBTQIA liberation movements. In fact, the epithet “faggot” derives from “a bundle of sticks or twigs bound together as fuel,” presumably to burn witches, African Americans, LGBTQIA people or anyone else whose existence and identity challenges the supremacy of the state.

Conversely, there are not equivalently hurtful legacies of violence against the flag. As Lipian put it, “If there are any doubts as to how rare this sort of event is, try Googling Sept. 11 memorial vandalism.’ ” That’s right, it doesn’t happen too much, and in many cases, the GIs killing and being killed for American “ideals” never observe the realization of freedom at home or abroad. Two of my uncles were forced to fight under our flag in Vietnam; all they got was Agent Orange and survivor’s guilt. This also informs my alternative understanding of “the flag’s integrity as a symbol of our citizenship” — which is to say, exclusionary and intimidating.

As I said, I too believe it is unproductive, inconsequential, immature and disrespectful to hijack a thoughtful memorial for personal-political purposes. With that in mind, I hope to have clarified some of the ways in which, to most of the world, the American flag is a symbol of power and violence; in which your relationship with flag informs your awareness of its symbolic history; and in which American life is neither more valuable nor any different than human life elsewhere. To most humans, the American flag represents our empire’s brand of terror, and we are in the belly of the beast.