“I fought for that flag. I lost friends who died fighting for that flag.” I’ve been thinking about this all morning. The remark was meant to be a condemnation of NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who recently refused to stand for the anthem. I mean no disrespect to the angry veteran who said it, but if left unglossed his statement reduces literal combat — a man’s literal experience of destruction, blood, and death — to figurative ceremony, which I somehow doubt that he intended.

A flag is a rectangle of fabric. It flaps from a tall post. Or it hangs limp as in Richard Misrach’s photograph (“Waiting, Edwards Air Force Base, 1983”), used as the cover image for a 2010 English reprint of Jean Baudrillard’s America. (Famously Baudrillard commented on the weird ubiquity of our flag, bespeaking a nation obsessed “with vindicating itself, perpetually seeking to justify its own existence.”) 

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It seems to me that a flag is at best a physical metonymy, an expression in shorthand for something either too variable and unwieldy to talk about or, in an epistemic sense, utterly evasive of articulation. Why fight for, possibly die for, a piece of flapping cloth except insofar as it stands for a reality more significant than stitching, pigments, and a pleasing arrangement of graphic elements? Wouldn’t it need to represent or in some way symbolize things — things beyond itself — that are worth protecting, that are worth fighting for? We have a flag. But what does it symbolize? That’s not a statement. That’s a question. I’m asking.