This is one of those things that can’t really be settled by enforcing overarching “rules,” but nevertheless has meaning for what looms over and governs our daily lives. The issue is hard to pin down, lurking in the interstice between enforceable rules and “free speech.” And the forces of radical-leftist and Islamist activism exploit the heck out of it to take over our shared communal spaces.
What I’m talking about here is something reported by Senior Airman Brian Kolfage at Wounded American Warrior on Friday, 30 January. He drove through base housing at Davis-Monthan AFB the day before, and saw this:
Why is this perversion of old glory flying on a U.S. Military installation? You’re free to express your sexual preferences in any way you want, but this is in violation of Title 4 of the USC to display a flag like this on any government installation.
More specifically Title 4 U.S.C. § 1 : US Code – Section 1: Flag; stripes and stars on: The flag of the United States shall be thirteen horizontal stripes, alternate red and white; and the union of the flag shall be fifty stars, white in a blue field.
He repeats his concern for the flag:
If you’re LGBT please show some damn respect to the flag that you took an oath to defend, not disrespect it. It’s the freedoms that our military has fought for that allow you to have a sexual preference openly, unlike in other nations where you would be killed on the spot if they thought you were LGBT in any way.
Just because “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” was repealed, it doesn’t give you the right to act like a fool and disrespect our nations flag.
And there are very few servicemen and women who would disagree with him. The thing about the U.S. flag is that, just as it is, it symbolizes your freedom. Those thirteen red and white stripes and 50 stars already mean you and I and the fellow over there are free to be what we are. We’re free to disagree on important things. The flag doesn’t have to be modified to elevate anyone’s political or personal viewpoint, in order for that viewpoint to be protected, or valued by the people it’s meaningful to.
But when the flag is appropriated in that way, it becomes something else: something not nationally universal; something not about freedom but about partisanship; something not about what an airman or soldier fights for, but about individual political preferences. Substituting a subversive “version” of the flag is showing disrespect to the flag and everything it stands for. It’s showing disrespect to your fellow Americans, and certainly to your comrades in arms. It’s saying, “America doesn’t matter. My factional cause is what matters.”
Air Force regs probably can’t fix this one
There’s probably not much of a way to enforce rules about that, however – at least, not in this case. The Title 4 section Kolfage cites doesn’t come with punishments for infractions. A military base can, of course, set policy that would prohibit displaying such a flag, and there are Air Force regulations I found online for other bases that do so.
But Davis-Monthan’s military family housing arrangements are contracted out to a private service, Actus Lend Lease, and its Soaring Heights Community housing is governed by regulations that don’t address the display of parody flags. (Download the PDF file of the Residents Guide to view the rules.)
To get the rainbow parody flag removed, the base commander would presumably have to work with Actus Lend Lease to change the rules in the Residents Guide. And that’s not as easy as it would be if the Air Force commander actually administered the housing. It would have to be a voluntary act of compliance by Actus, and I’m betting that lawyer-backed activists would have plenty of leverage in state and federal courts to go after Actus and its parent company, Lend Lease Group, which have their headquarters in Tennessee. I don’t know that the Air Force could win this one, or that it would want to go to the trouble.
It’s possible, of course, that the airman in the unit would be willing to take the flag down, just because she knows it has caused offense.
The tilted playing field
Regardless, we all know that the playing field is not level in this regard. Only some factional viewpoints get this protection from litigation-enforced passivity. Suppose residents of base housing wanted to display this as a parody flag:
Other residents would only have to say they’re offended, and the housing manager, no doubt backed by the Air Force, would find a way to get the flag taken down.*
Flying flags are proclamations, vibes sent out into our shared community spaces, whether they are national ensigns or lawn flags with team logos or Easter bunnies on them. When a flag is overtly political – implying things about the purpose or character of our nation – as the rainbow parody flag is, its presence asserts something about what rules over us.
It’s intended to. If the mere rainbow flag were good enough – if all the person displaying it wanted to do was celebrate LGBT sentiment – there would be no need to add the stars (the “Union”) to the rainbow flag. Adding those stars is inherently a political statement.
And that’s where my point about the space between rules and free speech comes in. We are free in America to make political statements with parody flags – even parodies of the national ensign. But that’s not because doing it is a good thing. It’s not because the act of parodying what millions of people have deep respect for is a positive action to put out into the world. We have the freedom because we don’t trust government to punish people for not respecting symbols. That power would be far too easily abused.
A one-sided problem
And now I want you to notice something. It’s not people like Senior Airman Kolfage who want to fly parody flags. He may or may not be viscerally offended by any of the parodies used as illustrations above, but I know as sure as I’m sitting here that he has no desire to put any of them up on a pole. It’s the American flag his loyalty is to.
Search how you will: you won’t find Americans who want to modify the flag to incorporate political statements about guns, Christianity, or traditional marriage into it. There is an important difference between the two sides in this debate. Only one side wants to hijack the American flag for its factional political sentiments. The conservative, limited-government side does not demand that everyone accept seeing a parody flag flying over him, one that proclaims factional political sentiments.
The conservative, limited-government side is right to reject this approach from the other side. Modifying the flag is a divisive thing to do. It changes the requirement for the viewer in dissent: instead of saying, “I agree to tolerate and live with your choices,” he is forced to consider the question whether he will live under rule by your choices.
He shouldn’t have to. It would make him unequal and perpetually subject to a whimsical veto to have to do so – just as it would you.
But, again, this dynamic can’t be corrected by the enforcement of rules. Rules can’t make people fair-minded or tolerant – or thankful for the unprecedented tolerance they have from today’s American society. Rules can’t make us all agree that our national symbols mean the same things to us.
Narrow divisiveness and factionalism are certainly not our way ahead. They lead only to chaos and breakdown. But in the borrowed time we have left today, fair-minded and thoughtful people really need to learn the important lesson that we cannot design a system of rules that will correct our problems for us. That includes the problem of people not approving of every life choice we make – and it also includes the problem of people wanting to fly flags over us that make us heart-sore, and make us question how much of America we hold in common with our fellow citizens.
The rainbow parody flag is a conundrum for us: it doesn’t represent liberty; it represents totalitarianism – enshrining one group’s factional political idea in the national symbols. There’s no enforceable rule to combat it with, however. No system of rules is foolproof. The spirit of liberty, in a diverse community, has to start in the heart.
* Note that this case is different from the one written about here, at Wright-Patterson AFB. In the Wright-Pat case, the airman objected to the display of the Gadsden flag, which is not a parody flag. It doesn’t modify any existing official or historical flag of the United States; it is a historical flag. The base runs the family housing at Wright-Pat, so the airman was correct to take his complaint to the base inspector general, and the base commander had the discretion to make a decision about the flag. The decision was that the flag could stay because it’s not a political flag, but a historical one.