[Marxism] Paul Street on flag-burning

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Feb 12 06:30:31 MST 2012

The problem is still with us. Case in point: the torching of the 
American flag by a masked Occupy protestor on the steps of Oakland’s 
City Hall on Saturday, January 28, 2011. One protestor and eyewitness, 
Troy Johnson, an Occupy Oakland member, told an Associated Press (AP) 
reporter that he arrived just in time see a friend of his emerge from 
the building with City Hall with a U.S. flag in his hands. “He asked the 
crowd, ‘What do you want us to do with the flag?’” Johnson recalled. 
“They said, ‘Burn it! Burn it! Burn it!’” Lighters were passed around. 
The incident was hardly a new development in Occupy Oakland: “A 
well-known Bay Area activist burned three during protests that 
temporarily shut down the Port of Oakland in November.”[2]

The justifications I have heard of the latest “left” flag burning from 
self-described radicals reeks of “expressivism” over “strategicism.” I 
am told that that the flag-burners have been deeply alienated by the 
American capitalist and imperial state and that for them the flag is a 
symbol of war, racism, indefinite detention, the unelected rule of the 
1%, and the ravages of the mass incarceration-ist police state. The flag 
burners are justifiably angry, the defense continues: their rage comes 
from their lived experience and it needs and deserves to be given public 
expression. It’s not their fault that the corporate media chooses to 
focus on the destruction of a piece of cloth instead on the destruction 
of real lives by American empire and inequality at home and abroad. And 
of course the state has initiated violence in connection with Occupy, in 
a most particularly brutal and provocative way in Oakland going back to 
last October.

I don’t need the lecture. I get all that and more, as my publishing and 
speaking record shows.[3] Personally, I’ve never been comfortable with 
the symbols of nationalism. (I wasn’t raised to value any reference 
group smaller than, at the risk of sounding grandiose, the human race). 
I am particularly ill-at-ease with the national symbols of the world’s 
most powerful and rapacious military empire, the United States, 
accurately described by Dr. Martin Luther King in April of 1967 as “the 
greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” King’s description 
was penned at the height of the United States’ one-sided  “crucifixion 
of Southeast Asia” (Noam Chomsky) – the so-called Vietnam War – but it 
still holds today, five U.S. imperial wars later, and that is part of 
why I have never in my adult years been comfortable with the ritual of 
standing for the National Anthem before sporting events.

Still, I would never personally sanction, much less participate in the 
burning of an American flag. This is for a very simple reason: that 
action makes no strategic sense and is in fact quite strategically 
stupid for a movement that claims to be serious about real and lasting 
connections with a working class majority of Americans. Whether some 
radicals like it or not, the national flag really does hold positive 
meaning – connoting such ideas as freedom, democracy, justice, and 
equality – for the preponderant majority of everyday American people, 
who share Occupy’s sense of enmity towards the excessive wealth and 
power of the super-rich and the rule of Wall Street and its 
corporations. Predictably enough, the Occupy Movement’s public support 
(as measured in polling data) plummeted once the flag burning went viral 
on television and the Web. What is the strategic point, exactly of 
deeply alienating those with whom you need to connect to build a true 
popular movement for justice, equality, and democracy – a movement that 
can and has in fact used the flag as a symbol to turn (on behalf of the 
99% of the Americans) against the highly globalist wealthy few who wrap 
their narcissism, authoritarianism and indifference to most of their 
“fellow Americans” in, yes, a star-spangled banner of lies?

There’s no strategic point, of course, because the flag-flamers are all 
about expressivism, not strategicism. Troy Johnson told the AP that his 
friend the City Hall flag burner was “not an anarchist, but a typical 
member of Occupy Oakland who feels the system has failed them. I would 
describe him as someone who loves his country, but also disappointed in 
the system that’s running this country.” A military veteran, Johnson 
said he wouldn’t stop the flag-burning because the United States is 
supposed to be based on freedom of speech and expression: “To the 
veterans who fought for this country, I wholeheartedly apologize, 
because when they took the oath to join the military, they fought for 
the flag. But they also fought for the right to express ourselves.”

Johnson pulled out his cell phone to show his video of the 
flag-burning.[4] Perhaps he will post his recording to Facebook, where 
dozens of bitter and hyper-alienated “radicals” I “know” love to express 
themselves in bitter terms seemingly around the clock

Yes, it’s sad (but predictable and nothing new) that the media focuses 
on the burning of a small cloth symbol while it ignores the destruction 
of villages in Afghanistan and Pakistan by drones, bombers, and missiles 
that carry that symbol. It’s terrible. Makes you want to scream. But is 
it not also sad that some “activists” value the public expression and 
self-display of their anger and alienation over and above the hard and 
difficult task of building a movement of and for “the 99%?” It’s fun to 
run and yell wildly in the streets. The thrill of transgression is real. 
But what price are we willing to pay to “get off” like that?


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