Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The trouble with flags

Over the years my relationship with the idea of a national flag has changed. At one time I would have happily saluted the Canadian flag, as I held it to be a symbol of my nation's people, our values, and my home. That was so long ago, however, and things are now a little more complicated.

The post-9/11 era, marked as it has been by a war on terror that is unending-by-design, has been a period of contemplation and discernment for me as far as flags and knee-jerk patriotism are concerned. Furthermore, the current debacle in the U.S. over the Confederate flag, as well as Louis Farrakhan's incendiary comments about what he considers the racist nature of the American flag, has only served to make me ponder the issue further.

This doesn't mean that I don't love my country – it's just that I have come to loathe the idea of symbols or frames of mind that serve as invitations to stop thinking. (And especially in a time of war, legitimate or manufactured, flags are surely not intended to inspire individual free thought.)

To understand this point of view, think in terms of comparing a flag to its respective nation's constitution.

A constitution is a means by which the people can hold their government and justice system to account, and particularly in a liberal democracy, it serves as a beachhead against iron-fisted rule by politicians who ought to know better. In short, constitutions protect us from the government, which is why hawks and the elite who control governments find the idea of constitutions a stumbling block at best.

The problem with constitutions (for those who don't like them) is that they are comprised of text that can be read, interpreted and acted upon by the justice system. If well-written, a constitution succinctly declares its people's rights which, in theory, must be respected by authorities at all levels. In practice, however, terroristic events (legitimate or manufactured) are used as a justification for gutting those rights, as evidenced by the U.S. Patriot Act. (I don't think the Act's name was ironic in the least - those who proudly self-identify as 'patriots' always come across as jingoistic loudmouths who seem to hate everyone who isn't part of their racial and political demographic. Witness the so-called 'patriot movement'. Furthermore, when have things like helping fundraise to build a new library, making a newcomer feel at home, or lobbying for safe drinking water ever been called 'patriotic'? These are community-building activities, yet I suppose they just don't stack up to protecting the right to fire off a few rounds on the back forty.)

On the flipside of this dichotomy is the flag. It is not meant to be interpreted or debated – just shut up and salute it, already. (And take off that ballcap, damnit!) And because it is an empty vessel to begin with, it can be filled with whatever meaning those in power assign to it. In times of war, the conventional meaning becomes the unquestioning self-sacrifice of our men and women in uniform, and implies that they are risking their lives for all of us, even if the conflict in question doesn't remotely concern us.

And when the fallen soldier returns from the field of battle, they are transported in a flag-draped coffin, which by turns further eradicates his or her individual identity, and further discourages any questioning of the validity of the war effort itself. After all, that would be an insult to the deceased.

I fought the war but the war won't stop for the love of god.
I fought the war but the war won.

-Metric, Monster Hospital

While I believe all fallen soldiers deserve honor, it is nothing short of grotesque to me that they are so exhalted for what I think is an ulterior motive, which is to glorify militarism and prevent people from asking pointed questions. To see how insincere dead soldier worship is, just look at how those who return home alive but with physical or mental wounds are so quickly disregarded and forgotten. In the U.S. and Canada, it has taken a non-stop succesion of war veteran suicides to push their respective governments into action, and even then it's to stanch any further political bleeding.

Something like the Highway of Heroes here in Ontario strikes me as nothing more than a propaganda effort of Leni Riefenstahl proportions. Is it for the purpose of remembering the fallen soldier, or is it a ghoulish exercise in social engineering aimed at manipulating public emotions toward a more militaristic outlook? I can't think of a greater desecration to a soldier's memory than the latter possibility.

In summary, consitutions exist to serve the people, whereas flags exist to serve the powerful.

As we North Americans head into our respective national holidays (July 1 in Canada, July 4 in the United States), we should ask ourselves just what it is we are celebrating. (And believe me, in this part of the world there is much to unapologetically celebrate.) Is it our fellow citizens, our community's shared values, or our sense of civic virtue? Or is it merely a religious devotion to national triumphalism?

Perhaps a question to take with you into the holiday is this:

Why is it okay for a government to gut a constitution, but not okay for a citizen to burn a flag?