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Tradition of Veneration : Why Flag Case Stirred Such a Flap

July 04, 1989|STANLEY MEISLER | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The 19th Century American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson once marveled at the symbolic power of a national flag.

You take a star or a crescent or a lily or "other figure which came into credit God knows how" and put it on "an old rag of bunting," he wrote. You let it blow "in the wind on a fort at the ends of the earth." And the sight makes "the blood tingle" of even "the rudest or the most conventional" citizen.

The people, Emerson concluded, "are all poets and mystics."

Poetry and mysticism help explain, this Fourth of July, the feverish debate that has embroiled the United States over the Supreme Court's decision to permit flag burning as an expression of protest. President Bush himself has joined the fray, endorsing a constitutional amendment to overturn that decision.

'Holy Icon'

To David I. Kertzer, an anthropologist who specializes in the use of ritual in politics, the uproar underlines Old Glory's role as "a totem," as "the holy icon of the American civil religion."

Thus politicians of both parties--and Bush's proposed constitutional amendment--use the word "desecration" to describe the burning of a flag. It is a religious word that means the defilement of something sacred.

That veneration has a long tradition in America. As Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist pointed out in his emotional dissent from the Supreme Court's June 21 decision, the Washington lawyer Francis Scott Key wrote his poem "The Star Spangled Banner" during the war of 1812 after watching British warships fail through the night to force Ft. McHenry in Baltimore harbor to lower its flag and surrender.

More Intense

But historians say the veneration has become more intense--and certainly more codified into law--since the turn of the 20th Century, and especially after World War I.

"The flag has always been important to Americans," says Michael Kazin, an American University historian. "But the creation of a lot of the rituals that we associate with the veneration of the flag came from that period. The Star Spangled Banner was not made the official national anthem until 1931."

Kazin and other historians attribute the rising consciousness of that era to widespread uneasiness over the waves of non-English-speaking immigrants entering the country and to the fear of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.

Until the American and French revolutions, most peoples did not care very much about their flags. Most banners around the world served mainly to identify armies in battle or royal families in power.

But the two bloody upheavals in the late 18th Century spawned flags that would symbolize and inspire new nations. The stars and stripes--designed in 1777 but probably not by Betsy Ross--and the blue, white and red tricolor put together a few days after the storming of the Bastille in 1789--are still among the most venerated flags on earth.

Two centuries later, nations and their flags have become inseparable. "With a flag, one can do anything," wrote Theodore Herzl, the Austrian journalist who founded modern Zionism, "even lead a people into the promised land."

Not all peoples respect their flag. Some Canadians sneer at theirs, a red maple leaf on a white background, as nothing more than an overblown bacon wrapper. Many Africans, more loyal to their tribe than their country, cannot identify their flags.

Protected by Law

Yet most peoples pay a good deal of homage to their flag, and a good number live in societies where the flag is protected by law from mutilation.

The British and Japanese flags enjoy no such protection, however, and even the French may burn their own tricolors with impunity. It is against the law in France to destroy, mutilate, degrade or pull down a flag put up by the French government, but no one has been prosecuted under this law since 1822.

The only country to rival democratic America and France in veneration of the flag is probably the Soviet Union. The red banner with its hammer and sickle is ubiquitous. Intentional destruction of the flag is punishable by imprisonment of up to two years in jail or enforced labor of up to a year or a fine of not more than the equivalent of $75.

"When I see our flag rippling in the breeze, my heart fills with pride," a middle-aged Russian woman with an advanced degree in physics said in Moscow recently.

"It's so automatic that even when I see the flag flying from a building where it always flies, I feel that way," she said. " . . . When there are parades, like May Day or the Nov. 7 anniversary, and I see all the flags together, I feel that the whole nation is on the march.

"It's all quite inexplicable when I talk about it abstractly like this, but that is what it means to be Russian, I guess."

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