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Flag of Shame

A reader has suggested that we post about the image below, which is labeled “truthflag” and has provoked a heated argument this week at Flickr.


The Flickr page reports that the photo has been viewed 164,050 times since it was posted on August 7 2006. There is one comment listed from 11 months ago, and 170 more in the last two days. Why the debate has flared now, I don’t know, but I’ll take it as a good sign. The debate turns on a basic question: is this a courageous act of democratic dissent regarding a shameful war, or is the dissent and desecration of the flag a shameful act of cowardice? I think the image is eloquent. Why? Obviously, the uniform speaks volumes. I think it also matters that the flag does not look new; this is not a case of running out to buy a flag for a publicity stunt. Likewise, the words themselves had to written laboriously, and the man’s serious expression communicates an equivalent resolution. This is a considered act by someone who is aware of what it might cost. The setting reinforces this effect: again, this is not a publicity stunt or a big demonstration, but rather someone in his own locale, perhaps a Guard office (you can see the water cooler and sports trophies in the background). His public act is grounded in his private life, and he is willing to take responsibility for his actions. And the message is all about responsibility, deeply so. The desecration of the flag and its soiled look suggest the shame he feels–shame is often experienced as a literal stain. The writing on the flag also overcomes two barriers to public speech: the flag no longer has the fixed meaning of “pure” patriotism, love it or leave it, that is used so often to squelch democratic dissent; and words that would be ignored otherwise acquire rhetorical force. I am reminded of a special news report following Texas v. Johnson, the Supreme Court case that now protects flag burning. Johnson was asked why, instead of burning the flag, he hadn’t simply spoken up to voice his dissent in the legitimate medium of public speech. He replied, “Who would have listened to me?”

Update: I had wondered why debate about this image had flared up. My colleague Eszter Hargittai wondered as well, but she knew how to do something about it. The answer is that it got “dugg”:

Those who like to mine comments will find 700+ at the digg page.


Flag of Shame


6 Responses

  1. patrick says

    Interestingly enough, this is a Howard Zinn quote that can be seen circulating on bumper stickers. Who knew bumper sticker discourse could be employed to such a powerful effect? Then again, this image does work that the words alone could not. Great find!

  2. Duncan says

    This was a question raised by the post about political wives, but I think it should be raised here: is this an accidentally powerful image? The soldier presents the flag almost as evidence. He almost surely is in a recruiting office of some kind (in the window you can see a recruiting poster of some kind – unsure which branch), and I know there has been a movement in places like the University of Texas to picket and protest recruiting offices with signs (flags?) like these. The context of the flickr page I think reveals two things. one, that this image is appropriated to some degree: the user has no other photos with this person in them, and has pictures of Mai Lai as well as anti-US/Israel political cartoons. Two, that digital images (particularly on flickr?) can be subject to easy manipulation. Flickr as a user-driven photo site creates complex ethos questions, where easy manipulation allows for pictures to be ‘discredited’ while at the same time lending a sense of authenticity to the rhetorical impact of the photos, as you pointed out. One comment on the page just reads ‘photoshop.’ I think that this photo posted elsewhere, perhaps on a more explicitly pro-war, pro-military site could acquire a totally different meaning: as evidence of leftist subversion or anti war heresy.

  3. eszter says

    Just to clarify, the way I found it was to think about the number of hits it had gotten. One or two blog links wouldn’t yield over 100K hits except on a very few blogs. A search on Technorati and Google’s Blog Search didn’t yield much. So then I searched for the URL of the picture on digg, and also on Reddit, and noticed that it had made it to the front page of both sites in the last few days. That explains this level of popularity.

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