Flag Irony in Florida

Students in a Florida drama contest were disqualified for performing a
James Clavell play in which the flag is cut up.

In the play, first published in 1963 by Shogun author James Clavell, third-graders in a classroom in a United States that has been defeated by a powerful enemy, presumably Communist, cut the flag into pieces. Their new teacher tells them if the flag is so good, everyone should get a piece and tells them to hand out the shreds. It’s a message about the dangers of mindless political indoctrination.

Here’s the reasoning behind the disqualification:

After receiving complaints about the flag cutting, co-chairman Melody Wicht, who teaches drama at Pembroke Pines Charter High, disqualified the McCarthy team.

“Some people came to me after the play and complained about the performance,” Wicht said. “So I looked into it.”

Wicht said she based her decision on Florida Statute 876.52, which says “Whoever publicly mutilates, defaces or tramples with intent to insult any flag … of the United States shall be guilty of a misdemeanor of the first degree.”

So, this drama teacher used this Florida law based on intent to insult the flag to disqualify students performing a patriotic play in which the flag is cut up. Sounds shaky to me. Clearly the intent to insult is not there in this pro-American cold war era play. Ironically, the message this judge is sending to the kids is more or less the same one the play warns about – beware authority figures who tell you to believe something you know is not correct. That message comes around again later in the article:

Still, retired Davie firefighter Tommy Jewell, a former commander of American Legion Post Dania 404 who has overseen the ritual destruction of hundreds of American flags, said flag desecration is wrong under any circumstances.

“There’s only one proper way to cut up a flag, and there’s only one way to burn a flag,” Jewell said.

Jewell feels especially strong about setting a bad example for young people.

“If we teach these kids in high school that cutting up a flag is no big deal, we lose something,” Jewell said. “The flag is our ultimate symbol of freedom and democracy, and as such it’s sacred.

As I read this whole thing (I’ve never seen or read the original Clavell play) it seems that the message of the play is the opposite of “cutting up a flag is no big deal.” Whenever these controversies arise over artistic expressions, be they plays or paintings or movies, it always strikes me how literal and “artistically illiterate” many people seem to be. They seem incapable of understanding this act as a larger comment on an abstract idea. All they see is scissors and flag.