Don't Burn the Flag; Wash It

Finally, some misguided "revolutionary" adventurers in Oakland have burned an American flag, associating the Occupy Movement with an act which most Americans, as well as people of other nations with their own flags, consider disgusting and provocative. And so it is. It is like taking a crap on someone's bible, a deliberate insult, like spitting into someone's face, thereby inviting, and indeed provoking, a fierce, unthinking, even violent, reaction, and abiding hatred. It could be argued that desecrating the flag is akin to desecration of synagogues and churches, even a violation of the rights of others; those others who, indeed, perhaps unfortunately, rather worship the flag, and what it stands for, or what they think or want it to stand for.
We must accept the fact that some people worship the flag the way others worship their concept of God. Of course, to many, including myself, the flag, a symbol, worshipped, is an idol; a false god. It is an idol representing another idol, "America," and whatever that represents ("freedom, democracy, free speech," etc.) to their worshippers; all idolatry. To worship these ideals or ideas, symbols or images, is idol-worship. To kill over them is idiotic.

It is a crime to desecrate a synagogue or church.  But this is done, mostly by kids, all of the time in many parts of the US; but it still is criminal, a disrespect for the rights and properties of others, and not only is unsanctioned by law, but prosecuted and punished. Rightly so.

There is an alternative to this lunacy: wash the flag, instead.

Washing the flag is a whole other statement. Where burning the flag says  'There is no hope,' and, 'destroy America,' washing it says that 'America can be reformed, fixed, improved-upon, and that there is hope.' (We can clean it up.)

Where there is hope, there is possibility of change. Those who are so disgusted with the lack of social progress, that they want to destroy or kill, cannot be taken seriously by we who know that progress is by necessity slow, painful and gradual, and usually a compromise, because powerful interests oppose it. But we have weapons that fire things more powerful than bullets: economic boycotts, for example. Stop the profits, and corporations get scared. They cannot enter your home and arrest you for not buying Corn Flakes. But millions of unified consumers can put any corporation out-of-business, by simply not- buying.

I'm not going to list our other assets. There are too many. They are commonly known and used with effectiveness by nonviolent people in every region. Lawsuits, demonstrations, elections, pressure groups, public information campaigns, teach-ins, grassroots organizations growing food and feeding the poor, non-governmental organizations like Doctors Without Borders and Lawyers Without Borders, which bring medical and legal attention to the vast problems of the poorest, and so on. Two centuries ago, none of this existed, or was possible! They are great examples of progress, created with great struggle, and taken for granted now.

Occassionally, something powerful like Occupy Wall Street buds and blossoms, during a money-drought, for example, as this one was. It grows to a zenith, and then with a change of seasons it fades, changes, and passes on, after seeding the future with more ideas, which become weapons of education, providing better perspectives, better thinking, and more intelligent and creative forms of activism. Like the "human microphone," for example.

Then some monkey comes along and throws a wrench into the gears. Here he is with a match and some gasoline and a burning flag to show us how "revolutionary" he is; he wants to be known, to be seen, to be rewarded with praise and followers. And some will go along. But he, and they, are destroyers, not builders. They have no ideas how to fix anything, other than by destroying what already is there. They are unready for governing, and unfit for leadership.

Perhaps the best that can be said for them--unless they are paid goons--is that their intentions might be good, but their thinking is stinking.

I propose that every time someone burns the flag, Occupy protesters and those calling themselves the 99% descend en masse on that spot and wash an American flag. See who draws a  bigger crowd, and which is more progressive and sincere.

I got the idea from Bob Fass in 1991 via Radio Unnameable (WBAI-FM, NY, a Pacifica Network station,)who related that the Socialist Norman Thomas (who won a million votes for President,) had suggested washing the flag instead of burning it about 1918. Bob's revelation inspired me to attend the Jan. 19th and Jan. 26th demonstrations against the war in Iraq, launched on the 19th by President Bush the First and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

To make a long story, which I've probably written about elsewhere, short, I washed the flag in Lafayette Park across from the White House, and had an immediate, approving, and mostly-delighted response from the antiwar crowd. I had a spiel, of course, which I made up on the spot, while scrubbing the flag into warm, soapy water over an antique scrub board. It went something like this:

"Do you know why I am washing this flag? Because it's got  BLOOD on it! Look, there is the blood of the American Indians!" (scrub scrub) "It won't come out! Maybe if I keep washing. Uh oh, here is the blood of the Mexicans that we stole Texas and California from. And here is the blood of a million people who died in our Civil War!" (scrub scrub, wringing it out) "Look, the  blood of Nicaraguans, Salvadorans, Guatamalans, and others, who were murdered so that US companies could get trade advantages! And here are the bloodstains of the slaves...and there's the blood of the Iraqis!" And so it went. You get the idea. "I don't know, is it getting cleaner?" (Crowd response: "YES!")  The crowd loved it, and bored network cameramen finally got something of interest to video. But not a scrap of it made it to television.

Daniel Ellsberg, (Pentagon Papers), one of my main whistle-blowing heroes, saw me doing it and exclaimed, "That's a very creative thing you are doing!" He tried to get me on the stage so that I could wash the flag on CSPAN, and we were at the foot of the stairs, me lugging a galvanized tub of water, when Jesse Jackson upstaged me with an unscheduled appearance. So it went.

If you disbelieve this, ask Danny Ellsberg.

The second time I washed it, on 26 January, the demonstration was much bigger. The Bread and Puppet Theater was everywhere! I also had to be guarded by the Capital Police from attack by counter-demonstrators, who shouted, when I was wringing out the soap, "I would like to wring your neck like that!" So the act is not without risk. Someone might shoot you for it in Texas, or Arizona, where gun-toting violence seems to be the rule, rather than an exception, and even suggestions that there is anything wrong with America are taken as personal insults.

Bob called a few weeks ago and suggested that I do it again. I demurred. I don't really want to be known or remembered for that, have no wish to  be famous or infamous, and I'm too damned old to face the violence of a crowd, too vulnerable to risk my Social Security with time in jail, and too addicted to freedom of movement to be arrested, perhaps beaten, or to get my name on a no-fly list as "an enemy of America," which I most-definitely am not. I am an enemy of war, and the arrogant ignorance which causes war. I am not looking for or expecting a perfect world; only a better one.

But, when I read about what happened in Oakland yesterday, I decided to wash the flag again, but on the Internet this time. After all,  the idea is to spread the idea, to advocate reform, and to turn a counter-productive act into a productive one. We have had many reforms in our nation's history, from the abolition of slavery to the suffrage of women to vote, laws to assure equal pay for equal work, Social Security, G.I. education legislation, anti-child labor laws, Medicare, protections for the young and the old, protections for the environment, and the Civil Rights laws, which enabled African-Americans and other people of color to advance, albeit slowly, into the main stream of American life.

None of these reforms came easily; all demanded sacrifice, persistence, patience and creativity. Of course, nothing is perfect, or ever will be. But progress has been made. You impatient and violent people, who want to wreck things, must stop and honestly consider the progress which has been made,  mostly with nonviolent tactics, and admit that, if it has been done before, it can be done again. Your extremist flag-burning is what Lenin would have called, "an infantile disorder." In my own opinion, you also have been victimized by the violence projected into your minds by American media, which make violence "heroic," and youth susceptible to the notion that they can be heroes with the successful application of violence. We don't need those kinds of heroes. We need sincere, patient, and intelligent workers, who are capable of honesty and self-sacrifice, and have the best interests of the human race at heart. If they can be amusing, even better.

The issue is not the flag, unless you make it one. The issues are bigger than the flag and the country that it represents. We must rid our movement of violence altogether, and burning the flag is a provocative act of violence.

Photo by
Nancy Nichols Jagelka
Photos With A Twist
P.O.B. 1114 Wash DC 20013-1114


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