HUMINT: New Glory

HUMINT: The flag of the United States of America is a powerful symbol. It is known by many names. The Stars and Stripes and Old Glory are just a few. The flag as we know it today is the product of our nation’s evolution. The number of white stars on a blue background in the upper left corner represents the number of states in the Union at any given moment in the nation’s history. Originally, there were thirteen states and thus, thirteen stars. There have been 27 permutations of the official American flag. The red and white stripes represent the original thirteen American colonies. The original 13 stripes have not changed. To me, the stars have always represented transcendence from colonial serfdom to independent citizenship.

The flag of the United States of America is rare among national flags. Symbols within the U.S. flag symbolize other sovereign governments. In other words, we are talking about dimensions of symbolism when we talk about the American flag. There is the symbolic surface layer, which represents a united country, held together not by a specific religion, race or personality but by a cohesive idea. That idea, symbolized most accurately by the American flag, is a philosophical amalgam of freedom, liberty and democracy. The idea has taken on a spiritual dimension virtually impervious to academic inspection.

The subjugation of Americans to an empire is symbolically represented in the Star Spangled Banner. The stripes tell Americans who they were. The stars tell Americans who they are. Within the flag, each star is a sovereign state. The depth of nationalistic meaning is incredible. Each sub-symbol is a reference to groups of people who govern themselves by popular sovereignty. The fact that the American flag is a symbol makes it a communicative device. All flags are symbols but the fact that the American flag is comprised of layers of symbolism tells us that its communicative value is higher than other national flags with less meaning. Consider the difference between the U.S. flag and the flag of Iran. The American flag has 50 stars, 13 stripes and 3 colors for a communicative score of 66. The Iranian flag has 1 symbol of Allah, 3 stripes and 22 repetitions of the saying “Allah Akbar”, “God is Great” for a communicative score of 26. These metrics are by no means scientific. Their purpose is to encourage citizens to think about the inherent symbolism of the American flag and the flags of other nations.

Regardless of its symbolic value the American flag should never be raised up as a sacred symbol in American society. Many nationalists around the world make themselves idolaters by worshiping their nation’s flag. If you’ve never seen it, it is a repugnant scene to behold. In the case of the Iranian flag merging spiritualism and nationalism forces Iranians to accept or reject both God and the State, at the same time. The sectarian nature of the Iranian flag is indicative of Iran’s national character. Alternatively, acts of desecration cannot destroy a symbol. Burning the American flag, for example, is a communicative assertion against popular sovereignty. While the flag burner may or may not perceive the symbolic meaning in the same way a patriotic American does, the definition of any flag is endowed by its creator. In other words, the perception that the U.S. flag represents anything other than what its creator intended it to represent is an illusion.

If an individual were to burn the American flag in protest, because they perceive it represents “imperialism” for example, they would be mis-communicating. By analogy, it would be as if that person were to point at a black surface and scream “WHITE!” The word “black” and the word “white” are widely recognized symbols of familiar colors. It would be stupefying to swap the two symbols. The act of assigning opposite meaning to symbols is disconcerting behavior to say the least. While each individual should discourage the practice of flag burning, I do not believe it should be illegal to do so. Legislating symbol usage, particularly when it is profane, tends to create more problems without solving anything. The concept is complex but not inaccessible.

For some reason, however, many enemies of these United States just don’t get it. Iran for example, regularly holds state supported demonstrations where the American flag is burnt to the sounds of crowds chanting “Death to America!” These demonstrations show that the government of Iran is using anti-Americanism as a cohesive social agent. Why are they doing it? They are getting away with swapping the symbolic representation of the American flag for an alternative meaning they control. For the sake of discussion, let’s say the symbolism contained in our Old Glory is too abstract a symbol for the Iranian government to understand. Americans, their allies and their enemies might benefit from a clearer symbol of what the United States represents. Imagine you want to show the people of the world what the United States of America represents – what would your New Glory look like?

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