The Flag, Captured

Scott Borchert Sep 17, 2010

Capture the Flag: The Stars and Stripes in American History.

By Arnaldo Testi, Translated by Noor Giovanni Mazhar

New York University Press, 2010. 

There’s no shortage of iconic images featuring the United States flag — Washington Crossing the Delaware, The Spirit of ’76, Iwo Jima, and the moon landing immediately come to mind.  But perhaps none better captures the contradictions of Old Glory than the famous photograph taken during a 1976 anti-busing riot in Boston.  In it we see a black man — a lawyer named Ted Landsmark — being restrained from behind by a white man.  In front of him is another white man brandishing the flag like a lance, moments away from ramming it into Landsmark’s body.

The photograph, titled “The Soiling of Old Glory,” is unsettling, and it speaks well to the thesis (and title) of Arnaldo Testi’s Capture the Flag: The Stars and Stripes in American History.  As Testi puts it, here is a scene in which the flag “is literally being brandished as an instrument of war to defend the purity of a contested civic space, to keep out those who are perceived as dangerous strangers” (69).  This is hardly the flag of “liberty and justice for all” to which millions of children pledge allegiance every morning in school — but that’s precisely Testi’s point.  The national banner of the United States has presided over Ku Klux Klan rallies and civil rights marches alike; it has accompanied soldiers into vicious wars of conquest and flown alongside picket signs outside factory gates.  Richard Nixon wore one on his lapel, and Abbie Hoffman wore one as a shirt.  That the flag has been put to different and often conflicting uses throughout U.S. history shouldn’t be much of a surprise to anyone.

But if the flag today seems like a relatively static symbol assigned a multitude of meanings, the case was the opposite in the early days of the republic.  The first official resolution concerning a national flag, issued by the Marine Committee of the 1777 Continental Congress, was somewhat vague: it described thirteen alternating stripes of red and white with thirteen white stars on a blue field.  Naturally, enthusiastic citizens began to produce many variations on this theme.1  At the time, the flag had no fixed style, although its meaning was basically understood by all — it was an institutional ornament, adorning ships, barracks, public buildings, and not much else.  That began to change, however, with the presidential election of 1840 between Martin van Buren and William H. Harrison, when aggressive flag-mongering made its first appearance on the political scene.2  But it wasn’t until the secession crisis and the outbreak of civil war that the modern “cult of the flag” really began to take hold.  The Stars and Stripes appeared on “hotels and shops, colleges and schools, rooftops and balconies, and finally, churches; flags were associated with the cross and the name of God and became a kind of domestic idol in every family” (27).  For the first time, the flag was an object of mass reverence — it not only represented the fact that the nation existed, but was tied up with deeply personal feelings of patriotism and sacrifice.  This re-institutionalization of the flag continued unabated after the end of the Civil War, spurred on by flag-boosting civic groups, the creation of Flag Day, the widespread adoption of the Pledge of Allegiance, the passing of a (basically unenforceable) Flag Code regarding etiquette and use, the absorption of the flag into popular culture, and, of course, the mass production of star-spangled consumer goods of every sort (all of which were technically in violation of the Flag Code).

Capture the Flag is a concise overview of this history as well as a meditation on how the people of the United States have understood the flag and how they have put it to use, primarily in the contexts of nationalism, assimilation, dissent, and art.  Testi approaches his subject thoughtfully but not uncritically, and in prose that is rendered lively and conversational by Noor Giovanni Mazhar’s smooth translation.  This is the kind of cultural study that is deeply informed by historical fact, and it covers nearly everything that one might consider essential, from arguments over flag-burning to changing attitudes on how the flag can be appropriately represented in the visual arts.  Testi — while undoubtedly sympathetic to victims of injustice and hostile to the perpetrators — is nevertheless reserved in his opinion of the flag, seeing it as a highly contested symbol that has been and will ever be fought over by competing groups.

And yet, something bothers me about such a relativistic conclusion — some question lurking that seems unanswered, if barely posed.  Consider again the photograph from the anti-busing riots in Boston, “The Soiling of Old Glory.”  In his examination of the episode Testi writes, “It is easy to imagine that, in the eyes of the more radical African Americans, this [scene] would prove that the national banner was, in effect, a weapon against them” (69).  He opposes this viewpoint to that (presumably) of the photographer, Stanley Forman, who chose the title “The Soiling of Old Glory.”  Such a title implies that the flag must be somehow inherently “pure” if it can be soiled — that the Enlightenment principles it represents, of political liberty, secularism, and formal equality, are themselves admirable, even if their emblem is often hijacked by reactionaries.  (And I’m leaving aside the idea that, throughout U.S. history, the flag has been more often “soiled” than not.)

There’s something to this attitude — the socialist movement, after all, is largely about deepening and universalizing these Enlightenment principles by struggling for the total emancipation of labor.  But it isn’t very helpful to think of the flag as “inherently” something, pure or otherwise, because a flag isn’t inherently anything aside from the material substances of which it is composed.3  What matters is how a symbol like the flag exists in the ideological architecture of society from one historical moment to another, and whether we can discern any sort of trend over time.  Testi’s conclusion seems to be that the flag of the United States is actually two flags — one of empire and one of liberty — endlessly clashing.

But there is another aspect of this to consider — namely, how the flag functions as an ideological instrument and in a material sense, as a force shaping social relations.  Testi touches on this in his discussion of “the cult of the flag” in the late nineteenth century, a time of mass immigration and heightened class conflict.  He writes:

Proponents of Flag Day and the Pledge of Allegiance4 had an obvious and declared goal.  They aimed at the Americanization of the immigrants and social peace in the workplace; they wanted to win the minds and hearts of the sons of the newly arrived and of the proletariat in a period of marked immigration and harsh working-class conflicts, perhaps the harshest and most violent the country has ever known. (34)

Mass adoration of the flag, then, was meant to repress class conflict and smother it under the weight of nationalism — to transmute the irreconcilable antagonism between capital and labor into an ideology of national chauvinism.  (Forget about workers and bosses — we are all Americans!)  Testi recognizes this phenomenon at work in the nineteenth century, but I would say that it perfectly well describes the United States today.  In fact, class consciousness is arguably at an all-time low — and what could be more responsible than decades upon decades of relentless, star-spangled indoctrination?5

So while it’s useful to explore the conflicting subjective meanings we assign to the flag, it’s crucial to understand how the flag functions objectively as an ideological instrument of ruling class hegemony.  In other words, the flag might be up for grabs as an abstract symbol, but its overwhelming historical role in shaping social reality is much more decided.  To borrow a line from musician Bruce Cockburn, “the usual panic in red, white, and blue” is what most effectively blinds us to the exploitative heart of capitalism; it is what masks the terrible logic of a system that understands only the relentless pursuit of profit at the expense of human need.  In this sense, Old Glory is already, and undoubtedly, captured.

1. One of these people may have been Betsy Ross — she did exist — but there’s no solid historical evidence for her role as the first designer of the flag.  Testi’s interpretation of the Ross myth is excellent: she is the only woman allowed into the national pantheon of founders, but in a fundamentally domesticized way, and her role bears no slight resemblance to that of Mary at the Nativity in Christian mythology.

2.  “Harrison presented himself as a rude frontier pioneer, used to living in a log cabin, and attacked Van Buren by depicting him as an effeminate dandy, unworthy of the virile, full-blooded American democracy.  In rallies and demonstrations, the Whig canvassers reinforced the sexual innuendos with intense flag-waving, in an unprecedented manner” (26).  Harrison won the election, but, as Testi points out, his machismo got the better of him: “he refused to wear an overcoat at the swearing-in ceremony, in the open air on a very cold day.  He caught pneumonia and died a few days later.”

3. Formally, the United States flag is “inherently” a flag of empire: it is designed to be easily changed to reflect the acquisition of territory (by increasing the number of stars).  As Testi puts it: “The flag is a variable icon geared to automatic expansion . . . the idea of empire is incorporated in it from the outset” (79).

4.  The original Pledge of Allegiance was written by Francis J. Bellamy, a Christian socialist and cousin of socialist Edward Bellamy, the author of Looking Backward.  According to Testi, Bellamy viewed the Pledge’s commitment to “freedom” and “justice” as ecumenical and as applicable to an “individualist” state (Bellamy’s term) as a socialist one (34).  Why he would want his Pledge to be used by an actually-existing “individualist” (capitalist) state is unclear.

5.  Of course, white supremacy — by dividing the working class and conferring perceived and actual benefits on white workers — is a crucial factor here as well, along with the imperial status of the United States, both of which are important components of U.S. nationalism.

Scott Borchert works for Monthly Review Press.  He may be contacted at 

This article was originally published on MonthlyReview. org.

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