Symbolic Threats

Flag worship hides the violence and division that truly shape a nation

Marvin Mattelson, 1982

What makes a nation? Like the American dollar stripped of the gold standard, like the two right-wing Presidents elected in the U.S. since 2000 without a popular majority, like political boundaries on a geographical map, the concept seems increasingly absurd. That American hospitality and wholesomeness, that the promise of greater equality, that “we hold these truths to be self-evident” are proven again and again, by brutal example, to be ideals not reflected in the reality of American life, and are instead reiterated as capitalism’s cosmetic democracy, leads to two conclusions. Either the individual realizes there is no common thread binding a nationality, and sees the false idea of a state as masking and upholding oppression, or they take a more abstract view, in the absence of a specific one. Some abstract concepts uniting a nation: the anthem, a mascot, a heartland, a flag. Americans have a notorious relationship with their flag, commodifying the symbol as an extension of their reverence—or vice versa—and treating displays of red, white, and blue as pedestrian. One nation united under three colors: a sentimental idea without substance.

In his 1965 speech “On Evasive Thinking,” the future Czechoslovakian President Václav Havel argued that “the so-called prospects of mankind are nothing but an empty platitude if they distract us from our particular worry.” He was addressing the tendency in Czechoslovakian literature to circumvent the specific conditions of reality:

A typical example is how reality can be liquidated with the help of a false “contextualization”: the praiseworthy attempt to see things in their wider context becomes so formalized that instead of applying that technique in particular, unique ways, appropriate to a given reality, it becomes a single and widely used model of thinking with a special capacity to dissolve—in the vagueness of all the possible wider contexts—everything particular in that reality. Thus what looks like an attempt to see something in a complex way in fact results in a complex form of blindness. For if we can’t see individual, specific things, we can’t see anything at all. And the more we know only what is apparent about reality, the less we know about reality in fact.

The American dream, the eagle, the Pledge of Allegiance, etc. cannot stand in for the roughly 330 million people living in the United States. Not only do nationalist symbols fail to represent the vast populations they’re meant to contain, they further the divide between those born into the status quo and those who are punished for failing to embody it. As Colin Kaepernick and his allies in the NFL have demonstrated, public displays of American patriotism and respect for its national symbols are important sites of protest. If intervening in nationalist rituals so privileged they pass as “convention” shakes up the status quo’s nostalgia and complacency, that refusal to participate is a reminder of the sickening reality on which a privileged status depends.

Such displays also invite inventive critique. In June 2014, German artists Mischa Leinkauf and Matthias Wermke made an artistic intervention on the theme of nationalist abstraction. Between three and five in the morning they climbed the Brooklyn Bridge, lowered the two American flags flying over it, and replaced each with flags they’d sewn in the traditional star-spangled pattern, but emptied of the usual red and blue: The replacement flags were entirely white fabric. Their project was a point of entry into understanding the ways in which abstract concepts alienate rather than galvanize members of the same nationality.

The statements of New York City police and politicians published across local media following the white-flag intervention almost unanimously condemned the “prank” and “security breach” as a terroristic gesture, as though the desecration of the flag was a show of violence against the city, country, and police. That the Brooklyn Bridge was cited as “one of the most heavily secured landmarks in the city, constantly monitored by surveillance cameras,” as an AP report on the project noted, indicates the point at which Wermke and Leinkauf hit a nerve. Any NYPD embarrassment as a result of this project stemmed from the fact uncovered by the early-morning flag revision: Police presence and heavy surveillance of a particular site do not serve the citizens whose protection the state claims justifies such practices. This was what offended the NYPD—the exposure of that reality, not post-9/11 fear. And rather than addressing the distance between message and action, the police, local politicians, and media instead engaged in an abstract conversation about terrorist threats against American landmarks.

When Wermke and Leinkauf outed themselves to the New York Times they explained their legal transgression as a mistake born out of cultural misunderstanding. “Few people would care if we did the same thing in Berlin,” Leinkauf said. A wholesome apology to reframe a project that they feared, perhaps, could bar them from future entry into the country. But whether or not they were massaging the truth of their intentions, the European parallel is useful. The white flag project (later titled “Symbolic Threats”) helps illuminate widely disparate conceptualizations among Americans and Germans of flags and other symbols of national pride, which are reflected in each country’s understanding of “national values” and responses to police violence.

To wit, 2014 was also the year of Germany’s FIFA World Cup victory—the country’s first since 1990, and first since reunification. That summer, soccer fans painting their faces with the German flag, waving the flag at public viewings of matches, or decorating their cars with black, red, and yellow were the subject of a familiar national conversation. During the 2006 and 2010 World Cup matches German and British news media had already pursued questions about shifting German social norms—specifically regarding guilt as requisite to expressing national pride—and what flag-waving at soccer matches might mean in a place where patriotism is somewhat taboo.

Opinion pieces published close to the time of Germany’s 2014 FIFA victory document the phenomenon of German patriotism-with-reservations in the context of World Cup fever. Jochen Bittner’s New York Times piece “Does Germany Need a New Flag?” exemplifies the debate:

Germans who regard themselves as liberal, educated and responsible to our country’s past view the flag as a specious symbol of nationalism, which is of course the most feared among the German vices.

Last September, when the final polls came in showing that Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats had won the national election, the party’s secretary-general started waving a little German flag, while singing along to a pop song. The chancellor spotted him and, with a disapproving expression, took the flag from him and stuck it somewhere in a corner of the room.

Bittner (an editor for German paper Die Zeit) also points out in his op-ed that the German flag “was first used by the revolutionaries in the 19th century who fought bitterly for a united nation.”

That the black, red, and yellow German flag is also the flag of the Weimar Republic—the era that preceded Hitler’s dictatorship—might further explain differing public relationships with the flag along generational lines. Public displays of the swastika and other Nazi symbols (including the Nazi salute) are illegal in Germany, and the post-WWII reinstatement of a tricolor German flag represents an official shedding of Nazi imagery. German legal code surpasses the never-ending American debate about these symbols, which employs the national value of free speech as a front for a state-sanctioned white supremacy.

Chris Kraus’s 2012 novel Summer of Hate illustrates how many Americans have quite a different relationship to their flag. The flag motif in Summer of Hate underlines a liberal tendency toward privilege-blindness, unchecked assumptions of goodness and progress because we and our friends are not Republicans (but maybe not much else, ideologically), and, more to the point, reflects the liberal “out of sight, out of mind” mentality. It isn’t until Catt Dunlop, the story’s centrist antihero, is forced out of her elite sphere and into depressed southwestern landscapes that she’s confronted with the reality of American conservatism.

But Catt never understands that the flag-free, isolated, and homogenous liberal world in which she finds solace is the better half of a corrupt class structure. Like many liberals, Catt appropriately finds private prisons, Joe Arpaio, and the justice system inhumane and horrific, but she never manages to see herself as the beneficiary of class position, or a member of the dominant class.

Unfortunately, life often imitates art. Outside the wealthy liberal bubble, Americans are particularly fond of displaying the flag during times of xenophobic anxiety. The more a foreign element is believed to impinge on white, economically dominant groups, the greater a patriot’s desire to fly their flag, promote “Americanism,” and claim faith in the strength of the country. Through this kind of flag-waving, it’s possible to map the dominant culture’s definition of a “threat,” and notions about what elements undermine American values.

For example, the picture of three firefighters flying an American flag in the rubble of the World Trade Center on 9/11 (Thomas E. Franklin’s photo “Raising the Flag at Ground Zero”) became an emblem of resilience and a tool of government propaganda. President Bush hosted the firefighters at a ceremony in 2002 for the release of a commemorative stamp based on the photo (“Heroes 2001”); a media controversy ensued when the New York City Fire Department revealed plans to build a statue based on the picture, with the white firefighters depicted as different races (the statue was never built); and a 40-foot bronze monument to the event (“To Lift a Nation”) now stands in Maryland’s National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Park.

The narrative continued in PSAs like the Ad Council’s “Main Street USA.” The TV spot was one of many the Ad Council and American advertising agencies produced pro bono as a part of the 2002 “Campaign for Freedom.” The ad depicts a residential street, with voice-over narration: “On September 11th, terrorists tried to change America, forever.” The image then fades to black, while the voice-over continues, “Well, they succeeded,” at which point the ad fades in on the same street, but now American flags fly from every home. Birds chirp and text on screen reads, “Freedom. Appreciate it. Cherish it. Protect it.” The spot was one of many about so-called American values: freedom of speech and religion, individual privacy, and the country’s status as a sanctuary for those fleeing corrupt regimes. Like all good propaganda, these ads were brutally ironic, and could have been read, in another context, as satire. They told the story of cishet white America, but, more importantly, they represented the state’s narrative about healing and righteousness in the months immediately following implementation of the Patriot Act, the declaration of a war on terror, and the construction of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

The popular chant—this-is-what-dem-o-cra-cy-looks-like—rings false to many because the white, physically able, and gender-conforming protestor is protected in their gestures of “resistance” or solidarity, while the daily lives of black, brown, Muslim, trans, disabled, or otherwise “nonnormative” Americans are policed and penalized as if everyday life were an act of dissent. The police lynchings of Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Kiwi Herring, and Michael Brown, more than freedom of assembly or “rebellion” for just cause, are what American democracy has always looked like, and depended upon.

American flag-waving obfuscates these and other abuses of power; reveals the state’s protection and definition of a white, hetero socioeconomic class as the legitimate citizen class at the expense of black, brown, Muslim, trans, disabled, or immigrant lives; and is our traditional response to a sense of foreign impingement on “normal American life” (white suburban families). The message goes: Don’t think about the President’s baseless claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, don’t think about the imprisonment of Chelsea Manning and, now, Reality Winner, don’t think about the dependence of all power on a disenfranchised, exploited class. Think instead of the firefighters at ground zero, who were certain that America would endure. Think of ordinary citizens, like those depicted in the “Main Street USA” ad, and their faith in this city on a hill. Think instead, “Make America Great Again!” Don’t ask: Who suffers in this society when the state makes better security and freedom for its populace a goal? Freedom for whom? Who does a Muslim ban serve? Who do police serve? On which caskets do we lay the flag?

On the other hand, in the time after a domestic terrorist attack carried out by white people, the media conversation that follows typically centers on gun control and mental health, not “freedom,” resilience, strength, or a call for demonstrations of national pride. The 2012 Aurora shooting, Sandy Hook, Columbine, the Isla Vista killings, and Dylann Roof stand as examples. We don’t talk about American values after a white citizen commits an act of terror, because flag-waving in the face of tragedy has always been inherently xenophobic.

The fundamental accord between a liberal worldview that tries to disclaim its membership in a brutal hierarchy and a conservative one displaying the flag with pride can be made visible through artistic interventions like Wermke and Leinkauf’s “Symbolic Threats.” Replacing an American flag and flying a white one in its place neither hides the reality of American society nor celebrates it wholeheartedly. At the least, however, it refuses to participate in the American flag-revering tradition as it currently exists. In removing some of the flag’s signifiers (but maintaining its starred and striped pattern) the artists played the patriotic strategy at its own game. By abstracting the national symbol and abstracting the appearance of a New York landmark by a small degree, the artists echoed the national tendency to surpass complicated questions of accountability and reparation. As such, the white flag is also the perfect representation of a middle point between American and German conceptualizations of the flag.

The white flags over the Brooklyn Bridge neither hid the symbol from view nor celebrated it.