GREGORY Johnson was protesting against Ronald Reagan’s policies at the Republican National Convention in Dallas in 1984 when he poured petrol on an American flag and set it alight; as it burned, the revolutionary communist chanted: “Red, white and blue, we spit on you, you stand for plunder, you shall go under.”
In a country where millions of children are expected to place their hands on their hearts and pledge allegiance to the flag every day, his defiant gesture was met with outrage. Johnson was charged with desecrating a venerated object under Texas state law, fined $2,000 and sentenced to a year in jail.
But the case was a watershed moment in US legal history; after much wrangling, the Supreme Court ruled that Johnson’s rebellion was a form of “symbolic speech” and so was protected under the First Amendment. The decision, which invalidated the law in 48 states, infuriated die-hard Republicans, so Congress passed an act making it a federal crime to desecrate the flag. Within days of it coming into force, hundreds of protesters, including Johnson, had engaged in mass flag burnings. Once again the Supreme Court found in their favour and struck down the law.
Since then, flamboyantly trashing the Stars and the Stripes has become the default means for disaffected citizens, and those of other countries hostile to the US, to communicate their contempt for whatever administration is in the White House. The practice still causes offence to right-wingers and every so often an effort is made to amend the constitution. So far, they have failed, as well they might. It’s intellectually unsustainable to honour a flag as a symbol of a people’s freedom then deny individual people the freedom to destroy it. After all, what is more important: the flag itself or the constitution it purports to represent?
The US is not the only divided society where flags have the power to awaken deep passions. Late last year, the decision by Belfast City Council to restrict the flying of the Union flag to a handful of designated days sparked weeks of riots by loyalists who saw the move as evidence of their diminishing status. In Scotland, the Saltire has never really carried as much political baggage. Unlike the Irish tricolour, the flag of Ulster and even the Union flag, the St Andrew’s Cross has been largely benign, a positive symbol the country can rally round at big public events, but not one which evokes extreme emotions. Even when draped across the terraces at Scotland matches, it lacks the triumphalism of the St George’s Cross, perhaps because, as the perpetual underdogs, we wield it more in hope than in expectation.
This is why, while I don’t dispute its sincerity, the scale of the reaction to Scotland on Sunday’s decision last weekend to use of a photograph of the Saltire with the cross altered to a swastika to illustrate an article about Gavin Bowd’s book on fascism in 1930s Scotland, took me by surprise. Regardless of one’s stance on this editorial judgment, are we really now so invested in our national flag that the thought of it being tampered with rouses us to a state of apoplexy? Are we, normally anti-authoritarian Scots, who would once have sneered at the reverence with which Americans regard the Stars and Stripes, so in thrall to the Saltire we think it is inviolable?
Perhaps a shift in attitude was inevitable in the run-up to the independence referendum; as rhetoric on both sides has intensified, Scotland has become increasingly polarised. At the centre of the tussle is the Saltire, which both camps claim as the symbol of their vision for the future of our nation.
Where once the flag represented nothing more than an apolitical sense of national identity, it is now being, deliberately or inadvertently, politicised, with Labour claiming the SNP has hijacked it for its own ends, and the SNP insisting Labour never showed any interest in it before the referendum was announced. Meanwhile, the Scottish Tories have also recognised the potency of the symbol by creating a Unionist Saltire – a logo which depicts the St Andrew’s Cross in red, white and blue.
So hung up have the Yes and No camps become about the flag, a series of rows involving the alleged “banning” of it in certain contexts have blown up. In February, Grampian Fire and Rescue Service removed Saltires from the front grille of two of its engines after complaints that they could be interpreted as expressing support for independence.
In this febrile atmosphere, it is natural that sensitivities towards the use of the St Andrew’s Cross should be heightened, particularly where it is perceived that its significance is being devalued, or its meaning debased.
In the case of the Scotland on Sunday photo, some of those who complained also felt that, by associating the Saltire with fascism, the newspaper had insulted those who fought against fascism under its banner. But the point of fighting fascism, surely, was to secure our fundamental freedoms and one of those freedoms is the freedom to cause offence. The Saltire will always be important, not just to Nationalists, but to anyone who holds Scotland dear. It is included on this newspaper’s masthead precisely because it is so closely tied to our conception of ourselves. Even so, it is important to retain a sense of perspective; to strike a balance between rallying behind the values we believe it embodies and mistaking it for those values themselves.
The Michael Douglas film The American President may not be celebrated for its political acuity, indeed it is downright vacuous in places, but at its heart there is a quote which bears repeating. Referring to images of his girlfriend burning the flag, Douglas’s character Andrew Shepherd says: “You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag. The symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Now show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms.”
If a country which treats its flag as a quasi-religious icon can defend the right of its citizens to doctor, deface or destroy it, then shouldn’t we?