Flags are having a real moment

Justice Alito, campus protests, and the meaning of a piece of cloth

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I’ve never understood the fascination with the flag. A flag. Any flag.

It is but a piece of fabric on a pole. You can buy one at Walmart, or wear it on a pair of swim trunks. You can put it on a bumper sticker or paint it on the side of your house. It’s considered so sacred, and yet you can wrap your car in a sticker with its likeness. Would you do that with something else so important? A photo of your grandma? No, probably not. 

We’ve had an unusual amount of flag stories lately, mostly thanks to Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito. It’s what’s gotten me thinking about their cultural importance—and their danger.

If you haven’t been following the latest in flag news, here’s the quick version: 

Last week the New York Times reported that in January 2021, there was an upside down American flag flying in front of Alito’s Virginia home. The significance? In the days after Biden beat Trump in the 2020 presidential election, Trump’s supporters displayed the flag in this way to convey their completely unfounded belief that the election results were not legitimate. (Alito later blamed it on his wife.)

Fast forward to Wednesday of this week, and NYT dropped a second flag—this time outside of Alito’s Jersey Shore beach house in the summer of 2023. But it wasn’t just a regular flag: it was the “Appeal to Heaven” flag, which has become a symbol of Christian Nationalists in support of Trump, and was paraded around at the Capitol insurrection. It’s particularly disturbing given the court is set to hear a January 6th case in the coming weeks that could also impact the prosecution of Trump on insurrection-related crimes.

And just for some bonus flag news, ProPublica reporter Andy Kroll shared a photo Wednesday of the Appeal to Heaven flag outside the home of conservative activist and godfather of this cursed supreme court, Leonard Leo

Author and journalist Sarah Posner had this to say about the flag fracas for MSNBC.com:

Legitimate questions need to be answered about who else had access to the justice. And Americans cannot be kept in the dark about how this radical antidemocratic symbol came to fly outside his house. The public particularly needs to know before the court decides, in the coming weeks, Trump’s claim that he is immune from prosecution for Jan. 6. If Alito acquired the flag on his own and chose to fly it, the public needs to know why. The flag’s proponents want a Christian supremacist revolution against the government. Does Alito?

A few Democrats have called for Alito to recuse himself from 2020 election and January 6th-related cases, but there seems to be a dearth of widespread political will to make it happen, and perhaps even less energy to open an investigation. The 6-3 majority court has the entire country’s human and civil rights in a stranglehold, and there is no political mechanism to hold them accountable. So they unashamedly let their red flags fly. 

Flags have also had particular resonance since the October 7th Hamas terrorist attack on Israel and the Israeli government’s subsequent starving and slaughter of tens of thousands of people in Gaza. 

Social media users have added Palestinian and Israeli flags in their online usernames and bios to signal their personal politics on the subject (causing some to be labeled terrorists.) Palestinian flags have appeared at the hundreds of anti-genocide protests across the country, and counter-protesters have waved Israeli ones in response. A Jewish Yale student’s claim that she was “stabbed” by a protester’s Palestinian flag spread like wildfire, despite it being untrue. Some Jews in the US and abroad see the Palestinian flag as, “synonymous with the violence, brutality, and atrocities of October 7.” Jewish American and right-wing Christian supporters of Israel have taken to displaying flags outside their homes and offices to show their allegiance. Lawn signs that say “Bring them home”—referring to the Israeli hostages remaining in Gaza–bear the flag.

The flags have become weapons in their own right.  

A flag is both exceptional and exceptionally common. It can be the most passive way to signal your allegiance, or something you’re willing to die for. Support a sports team? Fly a flag. Veteran of the armed forces? Fly a flag. Want to celebrate Easter? Fly a flag. Allow your unspoken statement to billow in the wind and let the observer glean their own meaning. 

Just as important as the intention of the person flying the flag is the reception of the person looking at it. The flag you fly could allow a stranger to create a whole story about you; it could make them love you; it could make them hate you; and in the case of Lauri Carleton, a California business owner who flew the LGBTQIA+ Pride flag outside her store, it could convince them to murder you.

Conversely, if a person who knows you sees your flag, it could change their entire view of you; it could make them think you’re brave; it could make them think you’re dangerous based on whatever they [rationally or irrationally] personally fear. 

And that’s what can be so troubling about flags: They, for good and for bad, allow an object to speak for you. A flag isn’t so much an expression of an opinion as it is a message of what is—and in some cases, isn’t—welcome. It can be a warning. The person hoisting the flag is establishing ground rules. They’re setting the stage for what kind of home you’re walking into. If I’m ever stranded on the side of the road and a the closest house has a “Let’s Go Brandon” flag out front, a broken down car is preferable to whatever awaits me in there.

In response to ProPublica’s post about his Appeal to Heaven flag, Leonard Leo explained why he flies it:

1. It is the flag of the first navy of the US, which was privately funded by General George Washington. For me, flying that flag symbolizes civic duty and philanthropy towards one’s country. 

2. As someone who lives on the water, I like naval flags, and as a history buff, I occasionally fly those and about a half dozen other early American flags. 

3. As a resident of Maine, the Pine-Tree-State, I like pine trees. 

Just because a bunch of insurrectionists flew a flag doesn't mean they get to own it. They also flew the American flag and I'm still flying that one.

That’s the thing about flags: Once you display them, the meaning is out of your hands. Leo may really just like pine trees, but someone sailing by his Maine home probably won’t assume that. Leo though, despite how influential, is ultimately a private citizen. Justice Alito, on the other hand, is one of this country’s most powerful public servants. The impacts of his decisions will reverberate long after a flag is lowered at the capitol when he eventually dies. 

Alito should not be allowed to have a piece of cloth speak for him when he has the largest platforms for speech in the world. But he will because he can.

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