The week before last at the University of California, Irvine, the legislative branch of the student government voted to ban the display of the U.S. flag and other national flags in the lobby adjacent to the offices of the student government. The rationale was that the U.S. flag “constructs paradigms of conformity and sets homogenized standards”, inhibiting “freedom of speech, in a space that aims to be as inclusive as possible”.
The ban sparked outrage and accusations of treachery and a lack of patriotism, a veto from the student president, and a rebuke from the UC Irvine Chancellor.
My own initial take was that the student legislative action didn’t seem like the best use of their resources, or the smartest way of making a political statement. Issues of more immediate concern might be the privatization of the UC system, the transfer of costs to students from the public, and calls to instrumentalize higher education in the U.S. and beyond. Unlike, for example, the divestment campaign, there are no materially improved outcomes for anyone. And banning things for their “offensive” nature seems like a substitute for a more trenchant and serious argument. In a strange way the students’ actions were reminiscent of the administrators who increasingly use the invocation of ‘civility’ as a way to police the behavior of others, and suggest that the most important thing about a university campus is that the goings-on there offend the fewest people possible.
For these reasons, the ban left the students looking a bit silly.
But the reaction from the public was typically hysterical, with people slinging around accusations of treachery and decrying what they saw as an appalling lack of patriotism on campuses. The student legislators also earned themselves a rebuke from the UC Irvine Chancellor, Howard Gillman.
The Chancellor’s message offered a wholesale repudiation of the students’ actions, decrying them as the behavior of an unrepresentative minority. The Chancellor began by noting that on any university campus one might expect to hear views that are “unconventional and even outrageous”. The Chancellor’s formulation suggested that there is some relationship between the action of questioning—an action fundamental to the purpose of universities—and behavior that is “outrageous”, and by extension somehow unacceptable.
Later in his letter, Chancellor Gillman made the jump from disingenuousness to outright stupidity. It was “outrageous and indefensible”, he wrote, that these students “would question the appropriateness of displaying the American flag on this great campus”. Gillman is himself an academic, and one might therefore have expected a greater degree of understanding about the role of universities in civic life.
Universities are designed to be spaces for people to explore and as much as might be possible, act on questions of moral, philosophical, and material importance. The purpose of a university is to create a sphere of critical intellectual inquiry shielded from the over-mighty hand of the state and its ability to intimidate and curtail thought. They are places where no questions should be off-limits and where students should be able to—indeed, perhaps encouraged to—question the rituals of obeisance our larger society pays to brittle, dangerous national myths.
Gillman’s concluding remarks illustrated the need for critical thought. He proclaimed grandly, “[UC Irvine is] an institution created by the world’s greatest democracy in order to serve this democracy, and we feel privileged to be able to serve the cause of freedom and progress under the American flag”.
This simple-minded and frankly quite ignorant reading of history by a university Chancellor demonstrates the pervasiveness of the fatuous and destructive patriotism that characterizes much of our national thinking.
The idea that the U.S. is the “world’s greatest democracy” is the stuff of all-too-easily spoofed political speeches, not of serious conversation, and demands some scrutiny.
By what measure is the U.S. the “world’s greatest democracy”?
We have a voting system in which a national candidate with the most votes can lose the election to a candidate with fewer votes. We have an antiquated “first past the post” voting system that limits us to choosing between only two parties, keeps small parties marginal, and can result in one party winning the majority of the votes across the country and winning fewer seats in our Congress. We have one legislative body that gives as much representation to a state with a million people as to California with its nearly 40 million inhabitants. We have our election on a week-day, and don’t grant people a voting holiday, and in many states moves are afoot to disenfranchise large numbers of voters, using methods associated with some of the many bleak and unjust moments in our country’s history.
We have a democracy that gives precious little to its people. Instead of recognizing the equality of citizens, or even any aspiration towards equality, we have a political framework that spurns the opportunity to provide public welfare in favour of fetishizing economic inequality. We give corporations rights while rigging the system against our middle and working classes.
And well might students question the idea of serving “the cause of freedom and progress under the American flag”.
Our country has a long history of colonialism and imperialism. Beginning in 2001, under the American flag and in the name of our values, our country developed a program of terror and torture, in which people were abducted and held without trial, and subjected to extraordinary cruelty and degradation. Our leaders who engineered these acts of state terrorism, and the functionaries who carried them out have since been shielded from punishment.
In 2003, our country launched and illegal war of aggression, pummeling the people of another nation with a bombardment meant to “shock and awe”. In the course of a colonial-style occupation, our government destroyed the infrastructure of that country, gutted its already damaged civic institutions, and turned mercenaries loose on its streets, retreating into an armed encampment derided as the “emerald city”.
Our country grants unconditional backing to the government in Israel, one of the world’s last colonial regimes, as well as to the authoritarian monarchy in Saudi Arabia. Our President uses a “disposition matrix”, what amounts to a lethal profiling system, to murder people abroad without trial. And massive rogue intelligence agencies vacuum up citizens’ information without oversight. Even when it becomes known that such agencies have lied to Congress and the public, their leadership goes unpunished and their behavior unchecked.
And none of these behaviours are without precedent. But what they make clear is that we are not the world’s greatest democracy. Given the ascendancy of the American plutocracy and the strength of our terrorist military-intelligence complex, it’s questionable to what extent we remain a democracy.
To those who would argue that student government is not the place to debate matters of this scale, I would offer the reminder that students are the people who will have to live the longest and contend the hardest with the world being created at this moment. It is also worth considering that while much of our country buried its head in the sand, students have issued some of the first calls to action about critical issues in our country’s recent history, whether the Vietnam War, Civil Right, apartheid in South Africa, Israeli colonialism, and the economic inequality that increasingly defines our own society.
Few people today would argue that prosecuting the war in Vietnam was in the public interest. And outside of the right wing of the Republican Party, opponents of civil rights in the 1960s would find few defenders. The Republican Party’s embrace of South Africa’s National Party, and its designation of Nelson Mandela as an enemy of the state are decisions that have not weathered time well. And I suspect that in a decade or two, criticism of our unbending support for Israeli colonialism will look similarly prescient.
The students’ efforts to ban national flags doesn’t get at any single issue, and isn’t the best way of making the point they seem to have in mind. But their broader points about the nature of U.S. power in the world, and what the flag represents for many are well-taken. And the snarling response they received both from the public at large and from university administrators charged with maintaining the intellectual integrity of the University of California is a strong indicator that the issues they have raised need to be debated, and not dismissed as “indefensible” criticism.