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American Flag To Stay Down At Hampshire College, While Reactions Fly03:21
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As the controversy at Hampshire College shows, the United States flag evokes powerful and sometimes contradictory reactions. (Jnn13/Wikimedia Commons)
As the controversy at Hampshire College shows, the United States flag evokes powerful and sometimes contradictory reactions. (Jnn13/Wikimedia Commons)

Hampshire College will not fly the United States flag until at least January, Jonathan Lash, president of the western Massachusetts college, said Tuesday.

The school’s decision first to fly the flag at half-staff, then to remove it entirely, has drawn national attention. But Lash said he wants to use the controversy as “a teachable moment” before deciding what to do next.

“We will very energetically pursue a series of discussions on campus,” he said, “and then we’ll reassess how to handle flag issues.”

The college had lowered the flag to half-staff on Nov. 9 “as an expression of grief over the violent deaths being suffered in this country and globally,” Lash wrote in a Facebook post Monday. The college had planned to raise the flag again on Nov. 11, Veterans Day, but someone took down the flag and burned it on the night of Nov. 9. After that, Lash and the college’s board of trustees decided not to fly any flags on campus “for the time being,” the Facebook post said.

The college on Tuesday closed comments on its Facebook page through the Thanksgiving break, saying the social media team would not be available to moderate comments. Before comments were suspended, however, more than a thousand commenters, often with no apparent connection to the college, had expressed fury and contempt over the decision to lower the flag. And a veteran from nearby Chicopee posted a Facebook event inviting people to carry flags near the campus Sunday.

Lash said the comments did not surprise him “because we had been hearing reactions for a week or so, ever since someone burned the flag in the middle of the night.”

“Unfortunately, our efforts to inclusively convey respect and sorrow have had the opposite effect,” Lash wrote in his Facebook post. “We have heard from many on our campus as well as from neighbors in the region that, by flying the flag at half-staff, we were actually causing hurt, distress, and insult,” especially to veterans and their families.

Lash also noted in the post that while some critics saw the flag lowering as a comment on the presidential election, “this, unequivocally, was not our intent.”

A Complicated Symbol

The flag itself is a complicated symbol, Lash noted in an interview with WBUR.

“For me personally, it is a symbol of the highest aspirations of our country, the things that I believe in that our country hopes to provide, in terms of liberty and opportunity and justice,” he said. “But I simultaneously am profoundly aware of the difference in perception for marginalized communities who, as one student said to me, wake up every morning afraid, and who felt deeply and personally threatened by the toxic rhetoric, the racist rhetoric and Islamophobic statements during the campaign.”

The flag has been a focus of discussion on the Hampshire campus for more than a year, with some faculty members and students protesting last fall, for example, that it was lowered for the victims of the terrorist attack in Paris but not for victims of violence in Beirut and elsewhere. Some students also protested the lowering of the flag after the death in February of Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia.

The latest controversy, though, comes as campuses across the nation are seeing similar protests focused on the flag. Flags have been burned at American University and the University of Missouri at Columbia, removed at Brown University and defaced at Wesleyan University and the University of Tennessee. The University of Dayton’s art department is displaying a flag altered to appear burned, and two students at St. Mary’s College of Maryland have been accused of shredding flags at the local post office.

One Flag, Many Meanings

None of this surprises Karen Cerulo, a Rutgers University professor who specializes in the social foundations of symbols. The flag is a potent symbol, she said in an interview Tuesday, and people use symbols to express strong emotions and opinions.

“This is the thing about symbols: They are adoptable by any group, even though the government may assign a particular meaning to them,” Cerulo said. “Groups within a country can grab hold of that symbol and try to invest it with new meaning.”

Cerulo said she’s been seeing a lot of flag imagery since the election -- used, in very different ways, at both ends of the political spectrum.

“I think what we’re seeing,” she said, “is a combination of people using the flag as a mode of protest, versus people who are using the flag as a mode of exuberance.”

On the left, Cerulo said, the flag is often shown upside down or drained of color, “some kind of perversion of the things we hold most dear, presumably because [the protesters believe that those things] are being perverted.”

On the right, she said she’s seen “an abundance of use of the flag in its typical state, sometimes with messages superimposed.” Sometimes those messages are simply celebrating President-elect Donald Trump’s victory, Cerulo said, but other times they’re “racist slogans.”

And she doesn’t think it’s likely that the nation will settle on any one meaning for its flag any time soon.

“I don’t think I’ve ever lived through a period in the U.S. where we’ve had such a bifurcated, split down the middle, two groups with two opposing positions and seemingly nowhere to compromise,” Cerulo said.

Flags After 9/11, And Now

Flags also proliferated after 9/11, but Cerulo sees some differences between then and now. For one thing, she has not seen in recent days Muslims and immigrants racing to display the flag, as many did after 9/11 as a way of declaring their “Americanness.”

This time around, she said, racism has been more overt, and “I’m not sure what it would mean for Muslims right now to fly the flag. I think they might feel more targeted by people who would say they don’t have a right to fly it.”

In part, she noted, that may be because the extreme right is using the flag as a way of proclaiming that their members, and they alone, have the right to call themselves American and to fly the American flag.

“And I think, by the way, it’s a mistake for people on the left to allow that to happen,” Cerulo said. “Rather than pervert our symbols, they should be embracing them as much as the right, to indicate that both positions are quite American.”

For his part, Hampshire President Lash said he hopes the controversy will lead to a more thoughtful discussion.

“What we are trying to do is to enable a conversation, an honest conversation, on the underlying values and issues,” Lash said. “And it’s one that, if we can have that conversation, will strengthen our community. And I would hope that the nation tries to have the same conversation.”

If such conversations go well, he said, they could be quite valuable.

“Our hope, if we’re successful, is to turn a moment of fear and anguish and dissension into a learning opportunity and a teachable moment. I think that that would be enormously powerful for our community,” Lash said. “That’s the hope.”

This segment aired on November 23, 2016.

Louise Kennedy Twitter Contributor
Louise Kennedy previously worked with The ARTery and as editor of Edify.

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