Opinion: Why the flag looks like that. And like that. And like that. (2024)

50 stars, 13 stripes, 1,000 meanings.

By Ezekiel Kweku | The New York Times

| July 4, 2024, 11:44 p.m.

When the news broke that an upside-down American flag, a protest symbol carried by the Jan. 6 rioters, had flown above the home of a Supreme Court justice, some saw it as a sign of how badly the court had been corrupted. Others saw it as a sign of how badly the news media had been corrupted. For me, the unfurling scandal was a testament to the enduring expressive power of flags.

According to Justice Samuel Alito, the decision by his wife, Martha-Ann, to hoist that inverted standard was an expression of distress over a personal conflict with a neighbor. Soon it emerged that she had flown another provocative flag, the Pine Tree flag. And later, caught on a secret recording, Mrs. Alito expressed indignation over the sight of yet another flag, the rainbow Pride flag She fantasized aloud about conveying her disapproval through, amazingly, another flag, one of her own invention that would bear the Italian word for shame.

It’s remarkable to me how, in a desacralized and image-saturated era, these simple devices can still inspire such intense passion. It’s also remarkable how flexible they can be as symbols. This is especially true of the American flag, whose red, white and blue is as laden with meaning as it is contestable.

That flag is more visible on the anniversary of the nation’s founding than on any other day of the year. It’s in front of government buildings, in the hands of parade-goers, in the windows of shops and restaurants. It will be worn on T-shirts, burned in protest and sculpted in cake frosting. It’s a seeming expression of unanimity, but everyone brings to the flag a different set of associations. And they’re all right.

The Pine Tree flag, which had its origins in the Revolutionary War, had been recently claimed by Black Lives Matter protesters and Christian theocrats alike before it was brandished on the steps of the Capitol by Jan. 6 rioters.

Even flags whose meaning seems unambiguous can take on different textures depending upon who is flying them and why. The rainbow stripes of the Pride flag has long been a L.G.B.T.Q. symbol, but as newer renditions appeared, adding stripes and symbols to denote racial diversity, transgender identity and a broader spectrum of sexuality, the original can, in certain contexts, be viewed as downright conservative.

The American flag, which Mrs. Alito flew upside down, is easily our most potent national symbol. The Pledge of Allegiance is addressed to it, and our national anthem is a paean to its endurance. The flag was born out of America’s revolution, surged in popularity during the Civil War, and was belatedly standardized some years before the nation entered World War I.

Almost all the most famous depictions emerge from wartime, from Emanuel Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware” to Joe Rosenthal’s 1945 photograph showing Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima. In 1954, using a mixture of wax and color on scraps of newspaper, Jasper Johns sharply pulled the banner a different direction. His “Flag” stripped the Stars and Stripes of its immediate connotations, turning it into an object whose very familiarity made it inscrutable. Mr. Johns would return to the flag dozens of times, and each rendering took on a new tone: “White Flag” is elegiac, “Three Flags” is playful and confrontational, “Flag” (1994) is contemplative.

The flag’s capacity to contain multiple meanings became obvious in the 1960s. Civil rights activists used it to stake a claim to America’s promises of freedom and equality; the white supremacists who beat and threatened them under the same banner laid claim to an opposing set of American promises. The flag is layered enough to be carried by both.

The antiwar movement at times held the flag aloft as a hopeful symbol of peace. Other times, the flag was inverted in dissent, or burned as a denunciation.

In 1966, Marc Morrel, a Marine Corps veteran, presented a series of sculptures incorporating the American flag. Bound with rope or wound in chains, the strangled flags strongly suggested corpses. Mr. Morrel’s suggestion of an unfree and decaying America came to the attention of the New York police and the gallery owner who exhibited it was eventually convicted of “casting contempt” on the flag. (The conviction was overturned in 1974.)

In 1968, Abbie Hoffman, an activist and provocateur, was the first person arrested — for a flag shirt he wore to answer questions before the House Committee on Un‐American Activities — under a new federal law against flag desecration. His conviction was overturned on appeal, and over the next couple of decades, the Supreme Court would repeatedly protect people’s right to use the flag to express themselves. After all, it belongs to them.

In 1969, Neil Armstrong took his iconic photograph of Buzz Aldrin with the American flag on the moon. The same year, to help raise money for the antiwar movement, Mr. Johns created “Moratorium,” a distress signal that inverted the flag in a different way. He rendered it in orange, green and black so that a viewer who looked at the white dot at the center of the flag for a minute, and then at a white wall, saw an afterimage of the Stars and Stripes restored to their familiar colors.

The chameleonic banner still has a mysterious power to incite and thrill, express and confuse. In my living room hangs a poster of Mr. Johns’s “Flag.” Behind me as I write is a poster of the Iranian American artist Sara Rahbar’s meditative 2008 piece “Flag #19 (Memories Without Recollection),” which layers the flag with new meaning by collaging over its stripes with textiles and tassels, affixing buttons and medals. Ms. Rahbar’s piece suggests that the flag’s many layers can coexist with the complexity of her own biography.

It’s a reminder of the way the flag, already saturated with the connotations of its history, still has room to bear more meanings. And perhaps here the reason for its enduring power: Only an abstraction can hold together America’s myriad contradictions — or at least has a chance to.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Opinion: Why the flag looks like that. And like that. And like that. (2024)

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