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Rapper Lil' Wayne has come under fire after TMZ, on Monday, posted footage of him stomping on the American flag while shooting a music video. The always-subtle gossip site titled the video "LIL' WAYNE TRAMPLES AMERICAN FLAG" in giant, bold letters. The internet, of course, lit up, with people aghast at this shocking spectacle of Wayne desecrating America's pride and heritage ("stepping all over the stars and stripes," as TMZ put it).

On Tuesday, Wayne, under heavy fire, posted what was effectively an apology on Facebook:
It was never my intention to desecrate the flag of the United States of America. I was shooting a video for a song off my album entitled "God Bless Amerika". The clip that surfaced on the Internet was a camera trick clip that revealed that behind the American Flag was the Hoods of America. In the final edit of the video you will see the flag fall to reveal what is behind it but will never see it on the ground. In most people eyes including my own who were raised in that environment, the Hood is the only America they know and the only America I knew growing up. I was fortunate from my God giving talents to escape the Hood and see the other beautiful places this country has to offer but most people who are born in that environment don't get that chance. That's their view of their America. That was Dwayne M Carter from Hollygrove New Orleans view of America. That's who I'm speaking for in this song.
(This is actually a rather profound point: that, for the millions of Americans relegated to a life of inner-city poverty, the hood is "America" - it's all they will ever see or know. But I digress.)

That apology, though quite sensible, will certainly not satisfy the voracious totalitarian appetites of the dedicated fanatics who are calling for Wayne's head. A publicist named Angie Meyer Olszewski told Fox News that what Wayne did as part of his music video was an "atrocity" to "every soldier who's ever fought to protect this great country." She confidently and cheerfully predicted that this "atrocity" will "without a doubt cost him album sales."

According to Fox, people on Twitter called for Wayne to be "locked up" for his heinous actions. John Ziegler, a "media critic and author," decreed that "a boycott here would be perfectly appropriate," though it's "unlikely" that it would have much effect "because his fan base will not see any negative coverage of this act from the news sources they are likely to consume" - code for "Wayne's fans are stupid black people who aren't interested in consuming real news sources and hearing the truth."

Even Wayne's own Facebook fans worked themselves into a frenzy. A brief scan of the replies to his apology reveals one "pissed off Army wife" who hopes this "ends" Wayne's career (177 Likes); an Army veteran who demands that Wayne either "sign up and serve" or "move to Canada or Mexico" (212 Likes); and another veteran who calls Wayne a "sad fucking excuse of a man" who doesn't deserve to be "buried in my country" when he dies (530 Likes). One commenter at USA Today sneered that this proves the Grammy Award-winning rapper "really has no intelligence other than the street smarts of a backyard hood thug."

The cult of flag-worship operates primarily at the grassroots level and it's terrifying in its reach. When the Supreme Court, in 1989 and again in 1990, ruled that desecrating the flag is an expression of free speech and is protected by the First Amendment, it invalidated flag desecration laws in 48 states. This is not just a pet issue for the ultra-right-wing fringe states.

The court decisions did not, by any means, settle the matter. In 2005, the Republican House of Representatives passed with a two-thirds majority a constitutional amendment that would have restored to Congress the power to criminalize flag burning and other physical desecration. It then went to the Senate, where it received 66 votes, one short of the 67 needed to send it to the states, three-fourths of whom would very likely have been more than happy to enshrine it as the new law of the land (in a weird twist, Senator McConnell was one of only three Republicans to vote against it). Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, the chief sponsor of the amendment, warned the dissenting senators that, should they continue resisting this movement to roll back the Bill of Rights, they will be subject to "the wrath of the voters." Hatch was wrong, in the sense that it's doubtful that any senators lost their seats due to their vote, but right on the fundamental point, which is that the public appears to be on his side. A June 2006 CNN poll found that Americans supported the proposed amendment by a margin of 56%-40%. A USA Today/Gallup poll from that same month found also found 56% support for the measure, though that was down from 63% in 1999. The USA Today/Gallup poll did reveal, though, that supporters of the constitutional amendment are far more intense in their views, with 40% of amendment supporters claiming they would be "upset" if it were not passed, and just 20% of opponents reporting that passage of the amendment would make them "upset."

This intensity gap is intuitive; flag desecration is a supremely emotional issue for those who want to reverse the Supreme Court's decision. Free speech advocates, on the other hand, are almost always fighting on multiple fronts, and something like flag desecration typically does not rise very high on the agenda. This is a mistake. The movement to abolish the right to desecrate the flag is one of the most explicitly totalitarian niche movements in the United States. Though it is mostly a grassroots, nationalist movement, it is hardly lacking in institutional credibility. I urge all readers to check out the official U.S. Flag Code, originally enacted by Congress in 1942 and reaffirmed several times since. It decrees that "no disrespect should be shown to the flag of the United States of America," offers eleven precise commands for how to treat the flag, and sternly asserts that "the flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing." Lil' Wayne was apparently stomping on a "living thing" in his music video. We would laugh at this if it emanated from North Korea or some totalitarian state.

As David Morris wrote in a 2005 piece for AlterNet, the "evidence that we literally worship the flag is overwhelming." Flag-worship is, at its core, a tool for ensuring conformity and controlling how people think and act. The U.S. Flag Code also involves meticulous instructions for how to properly behave in the presence of the flag during the National Anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance (and even, in the case of the former, when the flag it not present: "When the flag is not displayed, those present should face toward the music and act in the same manner they would if the flag were displayed there."). This is simply incompatible with any conception of a free society. Flag culture is very often conflated with the military - see the reactions above to Lil' Wayne's "atrocity" - with the obvious intention of demolishing the distinction between supporting one's country and supporting the military. The casual, widespread submission to all rules and commands relating to the flag, no matter how absurd, is extremely toxic to dissent, free expression, and individuality. Progressives and ostensible supporters of free speech must always stay vigilant on this, which means fighting back against totalitarians who demand, Stalin-like, absolute obedience in the name of the flag, and standing in solidarity with those who dare to break the rules of flag-worship and find themselves targeted by hordes of nationalist lunatics.

{Originally posted at www.justindoolittle.net}

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Originally posted to Justin Doolittle on Wed Jun 19, 2013 at 02:06 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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