Book review: Flag Burning

Mathieu Deflem

Published in American Journal of Sociology, 106(6):1822-1824, 2001.

Cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2001. Review of ‘Flag Burning: Moral Panic and the Criminalization of Protest,’ by Michael Welch. American Journal of Sociology 106(6):1822-1824.

This book provides an account of the history of flag desecration and the efforts to criminalize it. Welch's analysis is primarily directed at unraveling the course and outcome of attempts to outlaw flag desecration and the unintended consequences these had. The opening chapters provide a narrative of the main stages in the history of flag desecration. During the antebellum years of the 19th century, movements to protect the flag as a powerful symbol in American society had strong associations with nativism and patriotism. The Civil War was a first important catalyst to launch a veritable movement against flag desecration based on the intimate connection between flag desecration and anti-Unionism. Not surprisingly, similar intensifications of the flag issue took place during World Wars I and II.

Mounting resistance against the outlawing of flag desecration did not take place until the protest era of the 1960s and 1970s, when various forms of flag desecration, especially flag burning, became central elements in a more general protest movement. During the 1980s, this generality made way for more isolated but highly publicized flag desecrations by specific social movements, such as the Revolutionary Communist Party. The intense nature of the controversy at that time led to convictions on the basis of flag protection statutes. These statutes, however, were quickly overturned when the U.S. Supreme Court in 1989 ruled that a Texas antidesecration statute violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The debate shifted to the political arena, but a constitutional amendment to ban flag desecration failed. In 1989, Congress passed the Flag Protection Act, which in the following year, however, was ruled to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

The final section of Welch's book analyzes the reactions against flag desecration in terms of a model of moral crusading. Welch identifies the criteria of the panic, the social control agents and institutions that played a prominent role in the crusade, and the themes that were used to substantiate concerns for and against flag protection. Specifically analyzed are relevant congressional debates and the representations of flag desecration and flag protection in the media. The author concludes that political elites and the media have contributed to the idea that flag desecration is a revolutionary force targeted at the very fabric of American society. The media's role is more ambiguous in that journalists are also highly protective of First Amendment concerns. This ambiguity is also shown in the ironic consequences that reactions against flag desecrations have had in contributing to the opposition to the control of flag desecration.

Michael Welch's book delivers a contribution to the sociological study of a fascinating and important social issue. Any sociologist interested in flag desecration issues has to start with Welch's work, this book, and the author's many related articles. The empirical sections of the study, especially the identification of the various themes and players in the confrontational battle between First Amendment rights and the protection of fundamentally held beliefs and values, make for an interesting read. However, I found the work to be generally much less convincing in theoretical aspects. The book is largely indebted to a rather orthodox social constructionism, additionally relying on other sociological insights, particularly Robert Bellah's notion of civil religion, which is used to argue that the American flag has become a venerated object that demands special protective status. While occasionally useful, Welch's theoretical model is not particularly illuminating. For one, the theory is spiced up with a fanciful terminology (e.g., "authoritarian aesthetic") that is neither explained nor applied to any reasonable degree of intellectual sophistication. The reliance on theories in the social control literature is at times careless, most clearly when Welch uses Gary Marx's notion of the ironies of social control to argue that social control contributes to rule breaking (p. 179), whereas the original insight is that social control may contribute to deviance under specified circumstances, the conditions of which have to be carefully investigated.

Betraying certain normative tendencies in the social construction paradigm, Welch's analysis focuses too exclusively on the strategies of state agents to monopolize the opposition against flag desecration. This "elite-engineered model" (p. 124) neglects the popular, grassroots dimension of the flag protection movement. Failing to disentangle these two dimensions of power and resistancefor instance, in terms of a Weberian distinction between state and nationthe one-sidedness of Welch's perspective betrays a highly partisan stance. Desecrations of the flag are seen as "criticism of the state" (p. 4) that target the "authoritarian aesthetic by attacking its symbols" (p. 50), while movements protective of the "symbolic value of Old Glory" (p. 49; note the different terminology to refer to the flag) are claimed to use images that are "fraught with contradictions" (p. 9), relying on arguments that "not only fail basic ontological scrutiny, [but] also defy the underlying principles of the U.S. Constitution" (p. 12). I fail to see the scholarly grounds that could rationally support such a priori normativism to slip into our discipline.