Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Free speech and the flag

I recently watched a discussion of free speech vs flag etiquette. It's nice to see that the barbarians and pseudo-intellectuals can be civil so long as they're confirming each other's views.

The point at issue was whether it's okay to deface the US flag in the course of expressing one's views--the specific (and fictional) case involved burning "Why I love America" into the flag. The idea was that it's possible to do that in America without unpleasant consequences; we stand behind free speech perhaps more than any other country than I can think of, and that's generally a good thing.

But I still don't think that the particular instance of free speech was good or justifiable.

The problem is that such acts are fundamentally selfish--and worse, they confuse vandalism with Art. I doubt I'd get much support if I vandalized an artwork by burning a personal message onto it: there, the selfishness and vandalism would be too obvious.

What's wrong with messing up the flag, then?

Fundamentally, it isn't my unique property. It can be argued that if you own something, you can trash it. That's debatable, but I doubt anyone would claim it's okay to trash something you do not own uniquely.

Now, certain things are iconic: they are in the public domain, the common property of all, the unique property of none. They're like national parks: in a sense we all own them, but we own them collectively. I have no unique claim on Yellowstone. Because I lack such a claim, I have no right to vandalize the place. In fact, I would be committing a crime against the other "owners" of the park.

The same is true of the flag. I have a stake in it, but while I may own an instance of the flag, I don't own the flag proper: the archetype of which my physical flag is an ectype. So long as it is merely another object, my ownership is perhaps sufficient excuse for anything I do to it. But if my action is meaningful only with reference to the object's extended, iconic meaning, it's like vandalizing public property.

Again, there are limits on free speech--famously, the rule against yelling "Fire!" in a crowded building. Vandalism is similar: to destroy something you don't uniquely own--in particular, something I too have a stake in--mostly tells me that you're a selfish jerk.

Yet such selfishness is common these days. Any decent person will be troubled at least by the obvious desecration of a holy symbol, as putting a crucifix in urine. Yet when selfish jerks vandalize the Ichthys by putting legs on it and invoking "Darwin," the response of some believers, at least, is to answer desecration with desecration: they take it upon themselves to modify the symbol too, though in an attempt to defend it. Their reaction isn't as offensive, but it does demonstrate ignorance of the symbol's nature: it isn't the sort of thing that should be changed like this. (Variation is another matter: the plain Ichthys without letters, the one with the Greek acronym, and the one with the inscription "Jesus" are all faithful to the original concept.)

We are a generation of iconoclasts, too busy demonstrating our cleverness by destroying symbols and icons to realize how we cheapen the world for everyone. Anyone can tear something down and call the wreckage "Art" or "Free Speech"; it's much harder to create a new icon. It's too much work, in fact, and that's why we would rather call vandalism Art than strive for the real thing.

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