What Is It With the American Flag Fetish?


Americans’ Extreme Devotion to Their Flag Arouses Curiosity

One of the first thing visitors from other countries notice when they arrive in the United States is the abundance of American flags. They’re hanging all over the place, down to the facades of most houses. They figure in fashion and bric-a-brac, in sporting and cultural events, on bumper stickers, in products and the movies. The Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag is recited in American classrooms every day, as well as by all the legislators in the U.S. Congress. The United States is the only country in the world that celebrates a “flag day.”

In fact, the American flag fetish is just one aspect of an ultra-conservative, rabidly nationalistic mindset that has been nurtured in the United States over at least the past century. It goes hand in hand with racism, militarism, and predatory capitalism. The objective of this movement, planted and cultivated by right-wing politicians and fertilized by the usual suspects, is to stifle progressive government and forestall anything that even remotely smacks of  America’s biggest bugbear: “socialism.” Ironically, socialism is considered in the most civilized countries of the world to be a valued element in the democratic mix. It is thanks to socialism, in its different flavors, that Europe has set the world standards for the wellbeing of its citizens.

The American flag is the textile equivalent of the National Anthem and Mom’s Apple Pie. It is dragged out whenever the demagogue of the day wants you to fall into line. It never fails them. You’ve been exquisitely prepared for their call during your whole life. It’s the logo of Patriotism/Ultra-Nationalism/ Fascism, the chip that is planted in school children’s minds that later turns them into Manchurian patriots. For generations the flag has been preparing the yellow brick road to the Trumpish fascism that we see on the rise in the United States today.

Christopher Patella, lecturer in American cultural studies at Bates College, comments in the Washington Post on Nov. 3, 2017 on the intentions of the author of the Pledge of Allegiance, Francis Bellamy:


Through the pledge, Bellamy sought to define “true Americanism” against the rising tide of southern and eastern European immigrants “pouring over our country” in the early 20th century from “races which we cannot assimilate without a lowering of our racial standard.” Although Bellamy conceded that “the United States has always been a nation of immigrants,” he argued that “incoming waves of immigrants … are coming from countries whose institutions are entirely at variance with our own.”

Decrying the character and “quality” of these recent newcomers, Bellamy lamented that “we cannot be the dumping ground of Europe and bloom like a flower garden.” To him, “every dull-witted and fanatical immigrant” granted citizenship threatened the American republic.

The Constitutional Right to Disrespect the Flag

For years the disrespect of the American flag was penalized under various state laws. But on June 21, 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Texas v. Johnson case, the Rehnquist Court ruled that no laws could prohibit political protesters from burning or otherwise desecrating the American flag. That 5-4 decision gave new life to the First Amendment which, from then on, has protected the rights of political protesters to use the flag as they see fit in exercising their right to free speech.

According to the New York Times at the time, “In his majority opinion today, Justice William J. Brennan Jr. said, ‘We do not consecrate the flag by punishing its desecration, for in doing so we dilute the freedom that this cherished emblem represents.'” William M. Kunstler, the attorney who argued the case for Mr. Johnson, said today that the decision ”forbids the state from making the American flag a religious icon.””

The repercussions were immediate. Not only was the quasi-sacred nature of the flag discredited, but the extensive regulations and customs surrounding the flag were either derogated or cast into question.  The language of the sanctimonious United States Flag Code has undergone substantial changes. Instead of affirming that its regulations “must” or “will” be observed, it now states that they “should.”

Time magazine’s Walter Isaacson expressed the reverent ritual point of view in the weeks that followed the decision:

Reverence for the flag is ingrained in every schoolchild who has quailed at the thought of letting it touch the ground, in every citizen moved by pictures of it being raised at Iwo Jima or planted on the moon, in every veteran who has ever heard taps played at the end of a Memorial Day parade, in every gold-star mother who treasures a neatly folded emblem of her family’s supreme sacrifice.

So, the mothers of the fallen children get a “gold star” and a “neatly folded emblem.” But, even after investing their children’s lives, they do not get to participate in the benefits of the fabulous arms business.

Some of the Standards of Respect from the United States Code Regarding the Flag:

The Flag Code, which formalizes and unifies the traditional ways in which we give respect to the flag, also contains specific instructions on how the flag is not to be used. They are:

  • The flag should never be dipped to any person or thing. It is flown upside down only as a distress signal.
  • The flag should not be used as a drapery, or for covering a speakers desk, draping a platform, or for any decoration in general. Bunting of blue, white and red stripes is available for these purposes. The blue stripe of the bunting should be on the top.
  • The flag should never be used for any advertising purpose. It should not be embroidered, printed or otherwise impressed on such articles as cushions, handkerchiefs, napkins, boxes, or anything intended to be discarded after temporary use. Advertising signs should not be attached to the staff or halyard
  • The flag should not be used as part of a costume or athletic uniform, except that a flag patch may be used on the uniform of military personnel, fireman, policeman and members of patriotic organizations.
  • The flag should never have placed on it, or attached to it, any mark, insignia, letter, word, number, figure, or drawing of any kind.
  • The flag should never be used as a receptacle for receiving, holding, carrying, or delivering anything.

When the flag is lowered, no part of it should touch the ground or any other object; it should be received by waiting hands and arms. To store the flag it should be folded neatly and ceremoniously.

Quite a lot of ostentation for a simple piece of cloth, if I’m not mistaken.

The Flag as Blunt Instrument

The American flag has long been a valuable tool in the uber-nationalist bag of tricks. Since the Court’s decision to de-sacralize it, the American flag has largely been relegated along with the other trappings of right-wing nationalism: the right to carry arms to church, the superiority of the white race and the legality of purchasing politicians and elections.

For some inexplicable reason, Americans have generally considered it a privilege to die for the flag. At least that idea has been promoted by the patriotism industry. The truth is altogether different. Young American men and women don’t “die for the flag.” Increasingly, since World War II, they die in pointless military adventures organized by the American military/industrial/congressional complex for its own ends: profit and the accumulation of power worldwide. It is, however, true that the flag is excellent window dressing for ceremoniously draping the caskets of the war dead when they roll off the cargo jets at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, en route to glamorous military funerals in their hometowns.

One night in early 1968, while sitting at the bar of the NCO club at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, after two tours of infantry duty in Vietnam, First Sergeant George G. Govan said:

Over there, on the ground, soldiers don’t die for the flag. They die attempting to stay alive and to keep their buddies alive. That’s the reality. The rest is patriotic claptrap.

Mr. and Mrs. America, your children are dying miserable deaths in far-off places in order to advance opportunistic politicians’ colonialist agendas.  The young people are fighting for the opportunity to get a job or a college education. Some of them actually achieve that. Many of them don’t. They come back in black body bags. No amount of flag voodoo is going to bring them back to life. Many others return home physically and/or mentally destroyed, their dreams dried up in the sands of some insignificant little oil-rich country. The flag won’t help them, either.

These remarks by Noam Chomsky were published in the Spanish newspaper, El País, on 10 March 2018 (my translation):

The United States is the only country where, for criticizing the government, they call you “anti-American.” And that means an ideological control, lighting patriotic bonfires all over the place. Nothing is comparable to what happens here, there’s no other country where we see so many flags.”

Do I fear nationalism? It depends, if it means being interested in your local culture, it’s good. But if it’s a weapon against others, we know what that can lead to; we have seen it and experienced it.


The President of the United States on respect for the flag:


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