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Gary Younge
The fire last time

In a nation as hyperpatriotic as the US the routine obsession over whether to protect the flag with the constitution has always seemed odd to me. Yesterday's Senate vote was no different.

The effort to ban desecration of the flag seems not just entirely wrong-headed but about 40 years too late - the remnants of an entirely different culture war and evidence of age-old political opportunism. Flag burning is passé - why not amend the constitution to ban witchcraft and colour bars at drive-in movies?

To an outsider the flag flies so high, from so many unlikely places (car showrooms, amusement parks, strip joints) that it hardly seems to need protecting. Indeed I've seen it in plenty of places no European liberal or lefty would ever encounter it at home. It's stood on the podium of civil rights conventions with not a white person in sight; It's been waved at anti-war demonstrations under banners saying "Peace is patriotic" or "Peace is the American Way"; It's fluttered at pro-immigration demonstrations alongside Mexican and central American flags.

European progressives often miss the point about this patriotism. They think all Americans are similarly crazy about nationalism regardless of their race, ethnicity. But it has always seemed to me that the stars and stripes mean different things to different people. Some stand for the promise of the flag - the enlightenment ideals of equality and freedom - others stand for the power it represents to crush both ideals and remain supreme. Some stand for both not entirely sure what the difference is while for some African Americans, particularly in the south, it stands as the antithesis to the Confederate flag.

Hyper-patriotism in most of these cases is still the order of the day - but the uses to which that patriotism might be put are complex and at times contradictory.

Indeed it's precisely because its meaning is so flexible and its symbolic power so ubiquitous that people wanted to desecrate it in the first place. That stands in stark contrast to Briton's relationship with their flag. Of the countless demonstrations I've been on in the UK I've never seen someone burn a union jack because there'd be no point - it doesn't really represent much that the left want to reclaim.

If anything the very fact that American progressives once wanted to burn the national flag showed how much they had invested in it as a symbol. The fact that American politicians want to ban their right to do so shows how much they are invested in it as a cheap, political tool.

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The Speech: The Story Behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream
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