The installation is comprised of: a photomontage (the montage consists of pictures of South Korean students burning US flags holding signs saying ‘Yankee go home son of bitch’ and flag draped coffins in a troop transport; text printed on the photomontage reads “What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?”), books (originally with blank pages) on a shelf, ink pens, a 3’x5′ American flag on the ground and an active audience. The audience was encouraged to write responses to the question “What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?” As they did so, they had the opportunity to stand on the flag as they wrote their response. When this work has been displayed, thousands of people filled hundreds of pages with responses. Many many of those stood on the flag as they added their comments to the work.
The installation’s main goal was to critique the often sycophantic and narcissistic displays of so called “patriotism” in our society. President George H.W. Bush condemned the exhibit and the US Congress even moved to make displays like this illegal. Protesting Congress’s action, artists burned the flag on the steps of the Capitol, which led to a landmark ruling by the Supreme Court that defended their right to burn the flag as “protected speech.”
I bring this up because of the recent controversy concerning the actions of pro Football player Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick refused to stand during the national anthem, as a protest against the continued violence against minorities in this country. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said.
The backlash was predictable and typically myopic. People burned his jersey, called for his firing, and publicly railed against his actions, yet did not actually acknowledge or understand why, as a person of color, he might do this. But that’s the specific circumstances of this incident; I wish to speak of its larger implications.
In my estimation, Kaepernick’s protest is just as legally defensible and morally consistent as “What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?” His action was exactly what people of privilege and tradition fear: showing them what’s wrong with our society and making them deal with it.
We have violence in our cities, continued high unemployment within minority communities, homelessness, and the chronic mistreatment of our past and present service members who need vital healthcare and social services. And yet this is what dominates the news.
We have a society that obsesses over meaningless objects of idolatry, like the flag or lapel pins, but ignores and actively undermines alternative acts of patriotism.
Kaepernick’s act was that of patriotism, just as much as any person who stood proudly during the anthem and sang their hearts out. Who is to say what is and is not patriotic? If patriotism is nothing more than blind deference to symbols and slogans, than we are no better than the fascists the democratic world defeated nearly 70 years ago.
Patriotism is not a showy display of hero or symbol worship; it is embodying the idea of what your nation believes in. In the U.S., our cornerstone ideal is liberty. When Kaepernick refused to stand for the anthem, when Dread Scott created their art with the flag on the floor, and when a young kid refuses to say the pledge of alliegence because of the divisive and unconstitutional phrase of “One Nation Under God,” they are all reaffirming the true nature of our Republic, which is that of freedom.
Freedom to think, freedom to act, freedom to worship or not to worship. These ideals mean far more than some piece of cloth, a metal pin, or some national song. These symbols mean absolutely nothing if the ideals upon which they stand for cannot be lived out.
Therefore, until every homeless person is fed, clothed, and sheltered. Until every child can achieve a good education and live in communities that are safe. Until every act of patriotism, both traditional and unorthodox, is honored. And until every veteran and active service member is cared for with dignity and respect, shut the fuck up about national anthems, pledges, lapel pins, and flags.
Symbols do not deserve unadulterated respect; only people do.