The Daily Devil’s Dictionary: Shaun White and the US “Flag”
In the age of Donald Trump, could patriotism be flagging?
The US media was abuzz with Shaun White’s apparently unpatriotic behavior after winning a gold medal at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. Unlike Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico Olympics or Colin Kaepernick on American football fields, White was not trying to make a political point. His action, nevertheless, provoked some very strong emotional responses on Twitter.
So, why all the hullaballoo? Because “after being given an American flag, White allowed it to drag on the ground several times.”
The text of a particularly extreme reaction, from Ray Shaw (@RayandDaisy143), reads:
“THIS FREAK DRAGGED OUR FLAG ON THE GROUND AS FREAK-BOY WALKED AROUND LIKE A BABY BLANKET! Comeback? Way to go? Redemption? Wait until the Army studs grab this freak and KILL him. Way to go, Army! Thank you!”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
A piece of cloth symbolizing a nation or an institution whose purpose is to identify the symbolic presence of the nation or institution or its representative in a public place or on a battlefield
An organism or living thing that is fearful of contamination through contact with the ground
Our admittedly provocative definition of the US flag is not a satirical invention, but a slight embellishment of the US flag code’s literal text: “The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing.”
Patriotism has always been a problem in the US. In this culture of competition, citizens compete to show themselves more patriotic than others. Psychologists would say that this reflects a high level of insecurity.
In most nations across the globe, people see their flags as visible but inert symbols that serve as a reminder of national identity and invite a feeling of solidarity with one’s fellow citizens. Governments use symbols and slogans to foster a sense of national identity. In its most basic function, the flag serves to highlight the legitimacy of the government’s authority. US exceptionalism is nowhere more apparent than in the elevated status it attributes to the flag. US flag culture goes well beyond merely establishing legitimacy and fostering emotional attachment to the nation.
China compares with the US for its level of nationalistic and potentially xenophobic sentiment. But the Chinese flag code, promulgated less than 30 years ago in 1990, limits itself to defining the conditions of fabrication and display of the flag, discreetly requiring that “All citizens and organizations shall respect and care for the National Flag.”
By contrast, section 8 of the US flag code reads like a list of divine commandments or thou shalt nots. The Chinese created their code as a guideline for administrations and civil servants concerned with displaying the flag in public. The US code puts moral pressure directly on every citizen, dictating their behavior.
All nations encourage respect for their flag. The US goes beyond respect to instill a deeply ingrained fear of the physical act of desecrating the flag. Instead of simply specifying administrative guidelines, the flag code takes the form of a code of morals. Concerning individual actions, it can be compared to the instructions Catholic priests follow concerning the consecration and presentation of the host, the sacramental bread offered to the faithful at Mass. Paradoxically in a culture that still bears strong reminders of its Protestant origins, calling the flag “a living thing” resembles the Catholic doctrine that Protestants most clearly rejected: transubstantiation, or the “real presence” of Christ’s body in the host, suggesting that an inert object was a living thing.
US culture cannot avoid taking on a religious character, despite the principle of separation of church and state enshrined in the Constitution. The belief in the flag as a magical object with which one communes explains the virulent reaction of certain “patriots” to Kaepernick’s kneeling for the national anthem. Kneeling is a religious attitude, but “good Americans” interpreted his kneeling as worshipping another god.
The root problem in US history is that as a nation it has never fully believed it is united. The Civil War was a war of disuniting, followed by a feverish attempt to affirm unity. The union won that war, but those who consider themselves the most patriotic today are those who are most disrespectful of the government of “united states.” The flag has become a symbol of their belief in the union — a form of religious faith — rather than their adhesion to it.
In the eyes of some, gold medal winner Shaun White is a heretic (as well as being accused of sexual assault, but that’s another story altogether).
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.