This page considers national symbols and free speech, including
flag burning and restrictions on defacement of images of the
head of state.
It covers -
supplements discussion elsewhere on this site regarding censorship
and sedition in the online
and offline environments.
Attacks on national symbols or embodiments of 'national honour'
are a feature of politics and media attention in advanced
and emerging economies.
Such attacks may be tolerated, or even welcomed, as a manifestation
of free speech that is
associated with national law and global human rights agreements
such as the International Covenant on Civil & Political
Rights (ICCPR). 'Insults'
to national honour or to the 'national community' may instead
be treated as civil or criminal offences. Authorities in some
nations take a dark view of disrespect for their flags and
other symbols but endorse, even actively organise, burning
of the flags of their enemies.
Max Weber commented that all politics is symbolic, with images,
location, personages and words often having significance that
is not apparent to an independent observer. It is thus unsurprising
that political expression has encompassed -
burning of flags
or defacement of flags
of insignia on buildings
or defacement of official portraits and photographs of heads
of state or other dignitaries
of effigies of dignitaries
pamphlets and other publications that satirise dignitaries
or institutions, such as the armed forces and judicature,
that are regarded as embodying the state
expression may occur in public, for example at a street march
or other political demonstration, or in private. Notions of
national honour and of appropriate responses to perceived
offences vary widely. As noted in discussion elsewhere on
this site regarding censorship,
defamation and sedition,
some states have imprisoned citizens for "insults to
national honour" that include -
songs about the physical attributes of the president's mistress
(or merely that he has a mistress)
the head of state as a reptile or other creature
a printed speech to stuff holes in shoes
the corruption or appalling human rights violations of a
truthful and accurate information about man-made disasters
or merely inconvenient statistics
an article about the father of the country as toilet paper
in an era of paper shortages.
National symbols are shibboleths - signifiers that mark membership
of a community (and the exclusion, or inferior status, of
others). As such they are frequently contested or appropriated
by members of a nation. They are similarly challenged by those
outside a nation (or by those, such as an ethnic/cultural
minority, who would like to be outside the nation).
Ernst Renan's 1882 Qu'est-ce qu'une nation? characterised
a nation as
large-scale solidarity, constituted by the feeling of the
sacrifices one has made in the past and of those that one
is prepared to make in the future. It presupposes a past;
it is summarised however in the present by a tangible fact,
namely consent - the clearly expressed desire to continue
a common life. A nation's existence is, if you will pardon
the metaphor, a daily plebiscite just as an individual's
existence is a perpetual affirmation of life.
symbols are totemic, redemptive and accessible. One reader
of this page commented that portraits of Queen Victoria had
- and were often meant to have - an iconic status in much
of the British Empire. Australian jingo Pauline Hanson draped
herself with the Australian flag. A member of Hamas might
never come face to face with President George Bush - and certainly
never be in a position to spit in the face of each and every
US citizen - but is able to "spit in the face of America"
by defiling that nation's totem.
In states such as the US and France the national flag may
implicitly be the centre of the national religion, one that
transcends class and creed. The symbol may be embedded in
ritual and mythology - the Danish Dannebrog for example
is supposed to have fallen from the sky in 1219, the US Stars
& Stripes is wrapped in stories about Betsy Ross,
the rockets' red glare, Fort Sumter (and John Wayne at Fort
Apache) and the sands of Iwo Jimo.
metaphors to die for
Michael Geisler characterised national symbols, such as the
flag, as "metaphors to die for" ... and large numbers
of people have indeed done so over the past century. It is
precisely that status that makes disrespect - a contemporary
iconoclasm - such a potent form of protest and resistance.
Observers have noted that some symbols are more potent than
others - or merely more photogenic. Few demonstrators express
themselves by burning stamps: flags make a better bonfire.
Labelling a charred flag as art will provoke a predictable
furore akin to immersing religious symbols in urine or other
blasphemies, although open
to criticism that
a cheap thrill, one that requires a box of matches and impudence
rather than technical prowess or unique vision.
symbols are more accessible than others: Iranian mobs can
readily find the Great Satan's flag (or that of Iraq) and
effigies of George Bush but finding a bald eagle for the barbeque
is more difficult.
Few protestors burn works by Herman Melville, Charles Ives,
Christina Stead, Patrick White or Albert Tucker - those works,
albeit as representative as a flag - are not recognised signifiers
with the mana of the Australian or US flags. (Exercises in
the removal of cultural
treasures and in the desecration of national architectural
monuments, war memorials or tombs have, of course, been recurrently
used to humiliate enemies or strip them of a 'usable' past.)
Disfiguring images of Elizabeth II or Prime Ministers seems
to have little power for western audiences weaned on blurry
Warhol prints and Salvador Dali moustaches.
Sasha Weitman's 1973 Semiotica article 'National
flags: a sociological overview' commented that the flag is
so central to the idea of nationhood that it is almost difficult
to conceptualize the existence of a nation without one.
Unlike religious symbols, national symbols are often standard
and most national flags look much the same. That standardisation
means that flags in nationalist experience have role that
is distinct from symbols of religious affiliation or voluntary
organisations. A national community must have a flag because
other nations have flags; an insecure community must presumably
have an enemy and dishonour its enemy's flag.
appropriation and anxiety
Michael Welch comments that
moral panic over flag desecration provides a unique opportunity
to refine our understanding of adverse reactions to political
dissent, especially toward protest considered so offensive
that many people believe it ought to be treated as a crime.
reactions are evident in legislation against dishonouring
the national flag and other symbols (eg in India) and more
broadly in debate about responses to 'desecration' incidents
in Australia, the US, New Zealand and other jurisdictions.
From an Australian perspective there is interest in observing
online fora and media coverage about local flag burning incidents
over the past five years, with many people assuming that flag
burning per se is clearly illegal ... or that specific
flag protection legislation is required.
In the US there have been periodic attempts at the federal
level to prohibit flag burning, despite recognition as free
speech, and most states have flag desecration statutes. In
Europe several nations prohibit mistreatment of the symbols
of other countries but do not zealously protect their own
symbols ... and perhaps as a result encounter few incidents.
For western audiences 'virtual flag burning' or other desecration
of national symbols appears to have little impact, arguably
through desensitisation (the web is replete with inept caricatures
of authority figures, few of which have the wit and skill
of a vignette by David Levine,
and crude animations of incinerated flags) and because cremating
a textile versions of 'stars & bars' is somehow different
to hitting it with a digital spray can.
For orientation see Michael Welch's Flag burning: moral
panic and the criminalization of protest (New York: Aldine
de Gruyter 2000) and papers
from the Flying the flag: Critical perspectives on symbolism
and identity conference.
National studies are highlighted later in this note. They
include works such as Blood Sacrifice and the Nation:
Totem Rituals & the American Flag (Cambridge: Cambridge
Uni Press 1999) by Carolyn Marvin & David Ingle, The
Union Jack: A Biography (London: Atlantic 2006) by Nick
Groom, Saving 'Old Glory': The History of the American
Flag Desecration Controversy (Boulder: Westview Press
1995) by Robert Goldstein, Our Own Devices: National Symbols
& Political Conflict in Twentieth-Century Ireland
(Dublin: Irish Academic Press 2005) by Ewan Morris, Clashing
Symbols: A Report on the use of flags, Anthems & Other
National Symbols in Northern Ireland (Belfast: Institute
of Irish Studies 2005) by Lucy Bryson & Clem McCartney
and National Symbols, Fractured Identities: Contesting
the National Narrative (Middlebury: Uni Press of New
England 2005) edited by Michael Geisler.
Works on iconoclasm are noted in the Censorship & Free
Speech guide elsewhere on this site. They include lain Besancon's
The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm
(Chicago: Uni of Chicago Press 2001) and Robert Bevan's The
Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War (London: Reaktion
For community see in particular Benedict Anderson's Imagined
Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism
(London: Verso 1983), Ernest Gellner's Nations &
Nationalism (Ithaca: Cornell Uni Press 1983), John Breuilly's
Nationalism and the State (Chicago: Uni of Chicago
Press 1985) and Eric Hobsbawm's Nations & Nationalism
Since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality (Cambridge: Cambridge
Uni Press 1992).
Legislation and practice regarding 'insult' to 'national honour'
is highlighted here.
next page (Australia)