Some years ago, enrolled in a Creative Nonfiction writing course, I decided to write about my experience at CPAC, the annual conservative convention better understood as College Republican Spring Break. Probably the last day of the convention, a little hungover and very exhausted, I noticed a strange arrangement of flags behind the speakers—I had given up listening to the speeches themselves and spent the rest of the afternoon just staring at the flags. There were, of course, numerous American flags, but they were accompanied by other banners and the Maryland state flag (CPAC is always held at the Gaylord National). Subtly tucked in, although in a prominent location, was the Pine Tree Flag.
The flag is thus: white field, a starchy green pine tree with its copper trunk sitting in grass as a charge, and “An Appeal to Heaven” inscribed across the top length. The flag was originally flown on the masts of cruisers sailing for the Continental Army during the Revolution. My initial thought was that the flag was pretty cool-looking, in the manner that a College Republican thinks a rustic flag looks cool hanging in a dorm room (a design faux pas I have certainly committed).
My trip happened to be in the middle of a semester when I was taking a modern political theory course—so, I knew that the “Appeal” was a very particular one. In Locke’s Second Treatise, an appeal to heaven is a euphemism for revolution. When men are stripped of their natural rights by a sovereign, their only recourse is to take matters into their own hands and to overthrow the ruler—an improbable task that would likely require divine assistance for success. Colleagues better versed in Locke may correct me, but Locke’s references to the Divine have always struck me as instrumental and for the sake of ease (e.g., if one cannot fully explain the inviolability of property on one’s own, why not draw a spurious connection to God that preserves one’s inclinations without the need to provide a sufficient argument). Of course, the pine tree is not accidental to the flag. The emblem is a visual representation of Thomas Jefferson’s quote that, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”
Now, conservative passions ran high throughout the Obama years, but this coded call for violent revolution—I once presumed hyperbolic—sat at the forefront of the conservative movement’s flagship event for defining itself and challenging Democrats and, at the time, the President. I meditated on this in both of my write-ups. Clearly, the county GOP and my liberal arts college writing seminar had very different readings of this symbol, but both largely boiled down to: who cares about a flag? ( To be fair to my sponsors, they asked me to report on substance and not hungover musings; to be fair to my fellow students, I was writing this at the height of my sophomoric tendencies with a bourbon-fueled typewriting session convincing me that I should craft a second storyline in footnotes à la David Foster Wallace.) Still, the image of the Pine Tree Flag on the CPAC stage was seared into my mind and I haven’t been able to shake it.
Flags are among a group’s most potent symbols: they mark identity, demonstrate fundamental values, and, more generally, look neat. My favorite of the Twitter “bots” are accounts that mash up various flags together to see what the combination would look like . Within Catholic Twitter circles, mash-ups of the Vatican flag are always well received insofar as they reflect a desire to convert the world and demonstrate the worldly authority of the Church—plus, it is much easier and more fun to combine flags for evangelization than to do the deed itself. Sociologies deserve to be written, and I’m sure many have been, on the growing prevalence of the Gadsden flag or the “Come and take it.”
So too do Islamist paramilitaries and terrorist organizations have cool flags. Hezbollah’s flag makes a case to be the most powerful political symbol in the world: striking yellow background with a green charge with the Arabic script for “Party of God” transformed into a fist grasping a rifle, with a Quran, branch, and globe signifying the group’s global aims for resistance on behalf of Islam. Above the emblems, the flag identifies “The Islamic Resistance in Lebanon,” and below the Quran is quoted, “Whoever allies themselves with Allah, His Messenger, and fellow believers, then it is certainly Allah’s party that will prevail.” ISIS and the broader jihadist movement have also been (at least temporarily) successful in claiming sovereign legitimacy through the use of flags that clearly identify their aims: writing the Shahada (There is no god but God and I testify that Muhammed is His Messenger) in white against a background with the Prophet’s seal often depicted below the text. With their flag, ISIS identifies themselves as a state entity with no purpose other than living God’s Law on earth, with a Prophetic stamp endorsing their endeavor.
For a paper I’m working on at the moment, I have been studying Turkish President Erdoğan’s use of symbolism and imagery in speech. He has an oft-repeated line that Turkey is united as “One Nation, One Flag, One Homeland, One State.” So often in political analysis, we focus on political units, decision makers, or identity groups as the real objects of study. Yet, flags are perhaps more real insofar as they reflect a different sense of temporality than other objects of study. In the Turkish example, the flag is obviously a symbol of the state in the present but is also a canvas for projecting the future: where will this be flown in the future, who will be buried with it overlaying their coffin, and what heroism can be associated with it now for future generations to appreciate? But flags also have histories (sometimes invented ones). The crescent on Turkey’s flag is said to come from a dream of Osman I, the founder of the Ottoman dynasty, and would be an element of the Ottoman Empire’s coat of arms. The continued use of the flag today evokes Imperial traditions and positions the Turkish state as the fulfillment of Osman’s grand visions.
All of this is to say that flags evoke past traditions and values, present identification, and future aspirations.
Which brings us to the fifty-starred and thirteen-striped elephant in the room. What is going on with the American flag? There is an official explanation for the symbols of the flag, but I think President Reagan provides a more to-the-point explanation: “The colors of our flag signify the qualities of the human spirit we Americans cherish. Red for courage and readiness to sacrifice; white for pure intentions and high ideals; and blue for vigilance and justice.” I consider the thirteen stripes as not just representative of the original colonies, but also of the hopes and dreams of their appeal to heaven. It is noteworthy that the flag has been reformulated with the admittance of new states to the union, despite maintaining the traditions of the original thirteen. The US is flexible in expanding its vision to be more inclusive—that is to say, our history is not preordained and set in stone. We can make decisions, good or bad, to change who we are as a people and how our representative flag appears to us.
Now, whether any of that is true, and regardless of Reagan’s vexillological skills, the country has long sought or at least been able to see itself in such a manner. Certainly, there have been countless flag controversies in American history and it remains—likely always will remain—a question as to how inclusively the flag represents Americans. In the past, I surmise that flag controversies were centered mostly around the treatment of the American flag itself. To be honest, as a product of my time and with some youthful naiveté, I have always struggled to understand the fervor provoked by who does or does not fly a flag. There was a contrived scene in Aaron Sorkin’s new Chicago Seven film that showed an anti-war protestor at the Convention waving a flag in the air and subsequently being harassed for being unpatriotic. This did not provoke any emotions in me. I can sympathize with disgust for burning an American flag but have seen such images so many times that I am utterly numb to them as a symbolic gesture and, domestically, trust that it is a well-protected speech act. The protests of the 1960s simply do not resonate with me, positively or negatively. Perhaps the only relic of this political conflict that does amuse me is John Prine’s “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore.”
But, despite Sorkin’s best efforts, that was then, this is now.
The flag controversies du jour stem from two opposing flags: Black Lives Matter and The Thin Blue Line. BLM’s flags have a charmingly simple design. Black background, with a centered strip of white, that says in black and white: BLACK LIVES MATTER. This is a great representation of the group and movement. Concerned with racial equality, they frame the world with clear lines of black/white, just/unjust, and oppressed/oppressor. Their slogan and name isn’t so much a call to action as an incontrovertible statement of fact—albeit with less clear-cut policies and unwritten demands lying beneath the banner. The Thin Blue Line or Blue Lives Matter flag takes a different tack. This flag also makes the same black-and-white distinctions, recoloring the American flag to the two tones. Rather than the dichotomy of oppressed and oppressor, one of law abiding and criminal, or guardian and threat, might be more appropriate. In the very center of the flag is a blue strip, the tone associated with police departments and uniforms, in between two black stripes. I’m uncertain what the most charitable, most original, or otherwise preferable description of the line is but my own rough attempt is: “the thin blue line between safety and anarchy.”
I certainly have opinions on the ongoing conflict in our country, but they continue to change with each passing day and this is not the forum to hash it out. But, flags identify who we are and what we believe. In particular, national flags represent who we want to be as a political community. When a flag is changed, it signifies a change in values and simultaneously reifies the change. What is it that America aspires to be?
Featured image: 1885 history of US flags by unknown artist via Wikimedia Commons.