A Flag for Our Nation

“When our land is illumined with Liberty’s smile,

If a foe from within strike a blow at her glory,

Down, down with the traitor that dares to defile

The flag of her stars and the page of her story!

By the millions unchained who our birthright have gained,

We will keep her bright blazon forever unstained!

And the Star-Spangled Banner in triumph shall wave

While the land of the free is the home of the brave.”

– Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., 1861

The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s (unlike their Reconstruction predecessors) carried American flags on their annual march through the streets of Washington, DC. Twenty years later, skeletal children grasped the American flag patches on the uniforms of Patton’s Third Army as it liberated Konzentrationslager Buchenwald. The flag Dartmouth student Timothy Messen intended to burn two weeks ago was the flag carried by the Klu Klux Klan, but it was also the flag that symbolized hope for millions of people living and dying in Nazi-occupied Europe. Messen’s flag was the banner that flew behind the marchers at Selma. It was the colors to which General Motors workers clung during their 1936 to 1937 strike that ended in a victory for American unions. It was the standard carried by the National Guard when, under orders from the President, it arrived in Flint to protect those same GM workers from strike-breakers. To be sure, the American flag has been carried by many hateful groups, but it has never been and will never be defined by them or any particular ideology or faction.

An American flag displayed at Fort McHenry.

An American flag displayed at Fort McHenry.

When many diverse groups of individuals turned out on the Green to protest Mr. Messen’s flag burning, they each did so for their own reasons. Some were veterans who identified the flag with their comrades’ sacrifices. Some were left-wing students, who saw it as a symbol of liberty and justice. Others were conservative students, who saw it as a patriotic icon of America’s greatness. Burning the American flag is not wrong because it symbolizes any one of those concepts; it is wrong precisely because it doesn’t symbolize any of them.

It is easy to justify desecrating a symbol of any given ideology. If the American flag symbolized any particular ideology, then an individual who had reason to oppose that ideology could theoretically justify desecrating its symbol. For example, we generally approve of desecrating the Soviet flag, despite the heroism of the Russian soldiers who liberated Auschwitz. This is because the Soviet flag was not a symbol of the Russian nation; demonstrators against the Soviet regime did not carry it. It was the symbol of a political party, and the despicable actions of Soviet leaders during the liberation of Europe betray the primacy of this allegiance. The American flag contrasts with the Soviet flag not because one symbolizes capitalism and the other Communism, but because one symbolizes a people and the other symbolizes a tyrannical ideology.

The American flag represents this country in its entirety: its people, virtuous and wicked; its actions, cruel and saintly; its ideas, good and evil. Because of this, burning it is a rejection of every piece of what it means to be an American. It does not symbolize a condemnation of America’s war against the Indians, it symbolizes shirking moral responsibility for that role. It does not symbolize rejection of those Americans who use the flag for evil, it symbolizes rejection of the pluralism that undergirds American society.

The verse at the beginning of this editorial, written by Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1861, extolls the sacred character of the American flag. Holmes, writing at a time of immense strife within the United States, defined a traitor as someone who “dares to defile the flag of her stars and the page of her story.” While the verse is intentionally nebulous, it also has a concrete meaning. Defiling the “flag of her stars” refers to the Confederates rending the Union apart, thereby tearing their portion of the flag’s stars from its canton. The “page of her story” is none other than the United States Constitution, which the Confederates also violated.

In contemporary America, those ignorant of history claim our country is more divided than it has ever been in history of the nation. While this is hyperbole, we can still benefit from lessons in our nation’s divided past. It is not the actual threat of California’s secession, anti-government violence, or President Trump’s assassination that scare us. We have experienced secession, riots, and assassinations before. It is the threat this rhetoric poses to our national character: the value we place on unity, pluralism, and the rule of law. When Holmes wrote that the “millions unchained” were the means by which America’s “bright blazon” would be “forever unstained,” he meant that freed slaves and free-born Americans, themselves descended from those who escaped tyranny, would literally defend their own freedom. He used this current reality to illustrate the mechanism by which free Americans preserved America’s freedom. For Holmes, the ability of the American flag to fly in its full literal and figurative capacity was contingent upon real, brave Americans and their fight to make their land free.

We hold that principled dissent and the courage to stand by one’s convictions are fundamental American values, but we simultaneously believe that attempts to undermine our nation are by definition anti-American and contrary to any and all American values. America is not a perfect nation, and no one claims it cannot be improved. There is no doubt that the American flag, to Mr. Holmes’ disappointment, has its fair share of stains. Some of those stains come from innocents we slew in cold blood, but far more come from evildoers we banished to the depths of Hell. When I ask myself whether it is justifiable to burn an American flag, my conscience dictates that I remember everything it stands for. For that reason, and that reason alone, I cannot abide by the desecration of our flag.