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.