1. The American President (1995)
A romantic comedy is a weird place to find a controversy about the desecration of the American flag, but here we are: It was 1995, in the middle of President Clinton’s first term, and political rhetoric seemed mired in an all-time low, slung between liberal cynicism and conservative ruthlessness. Borne from the ashes of faith in government came Aaron Sorkin’s The American President, one of his many first drafts for The West Wing that had the same rapid-fire dialogue and near-screwball comedy. It also had an ax to grind. The story of the widower president of the United States falling for and then dating a lobbyist is textbook rom-com, right down to the meet-cute and the second-act twist that briefly tears the lovers apart. But the wrench in the gears is an old flame of a different sort entirely: Shepherd’s Republican opponent finds an old photo of his girlfriend at a flag-burning anti-war protest, creating a PR nightmare for his administration. Now, flag burning is a kind of passé concern—the Supreme Court declared it a protected form of free speech in 1989, which sparked conversation in pop culture from both sides of the debate. Most of the examples on this list are from the ’90s, when the debate was at its height—but politically, it seems, most of the country has moved on from the anxiety of flag desecration. Certainly the public in The American President is induced to move on. In President Shepherd’s mic-dropping speech that ends the controversy, cements his win for re-election, and wins him the girl, he says:
You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag. The symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Now show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the land of the free.
2. Futurama, “A Taste Of Freedom” (2002)
Flag burning tends to hog all of the attention, but there are other, less iconic ways to desecrate our most sacred of national fabrics. Like, say, by devouring it. In “A Taste Of Freedom,” an episode from the fourth season of Futurama, ostracized medical crustacean Zoidberg slurps up the beloved Earth flag like a strand of pasta. Normally, the good doctor’s atrocious diet can be chalked up to the fact that he is, in Fry’s immortal words, “a weird monster who smells like he eats garbage and does.” For once, however, Zoidberg’s gluttony has purpose: He chows down on the flag to make a point about what it represents, exercising his civil liberties one bite at a time. (He also later sets it ablaze, though that’s as much a military maneuver as a political statement.) “A Taste Of Freedom,” which eventually drags Zoidberg before the Supreme Court, is Futurama at its preachiest. For all its polemical points about patriotism and free speech, the episode communicates a simpler message: Grand speeches are much easier to swallow when they’re coming from tentacled maw of a space lobster.
3. Four Friends (1981)
Playwright and screenwriter Steve Tesich grew up in the ’60s, and director Arthur Penn had some of his biggest successes with such counterculture hits as Bonnie And Clyde and Alice’s Restaurant. The two collaborated on Four Friends, one of a number of movies that tried to take stock and make sense of that decade from the vantage point of the more conservative ’80s. The hero, played by Craig Wasson, is the son of Yugosalvian immigrants, and as a college student feels supportive of those protesting the war in Vietnam. But he’s also proud and grateful to be living in the land of the free and the home of the brave, and when he’s driving past an anti-war demonstration and sees the protestors burning an American flag, he reacts with hurt and disgust. Made at a time when the country had recently elected a new president who denounced all war protesters as unpatriotic scum, the scene feels like an attempt by the filmmakers to find common ground. It’s as if they were saying, “We still don’t think the war was a good idea, but that doesn’t mean there’s not a line we won’t cross.”
4. Marilyn Manson, “Burning Flag” (2000)
Baiting the religious right is all in a day’s work for Marilyn Manson—although he puts in some overtime on “Burning Flag.” Released in 2000, the song condemns America’s glorification of sex, death, and violence by reflecting it right back, and then ramping it up by a factor of 10. “If god was alive / He’d hate you anyway,” Manson screeches over scarifying guitars and a pneumatic beat. The brunt of his wrath, though, is saved for blind, hypocritical patriotism and the incendiary self-destruction he feels goes hand-in-hand with Old Glory-waving: “We’re all just stars on your burning flag.”
5. The Rocketeer (1991)
Twenty years before Joe Johnston directed Captain America: The First Avenger, he made the film version of The Rocketeer, another comic book-superhero movie saturated in World War II-era pop iconography. The hero, Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell), has gotten ahold of a rocket pack that allows him to fly through the air, battling his enemies—Nazi agents who want to deliver the device to Hitler. The movie shows the likely results if they succeed with an animated propaganda film depicting skies full of jet-propelled Nazis and an American flag in flames. But Johnston also includes a sardonic joke at the expense of those who take their patriotic imagery too seriously. At the climax, Cliff prepares to fly to the rescue in a carefully composed shot of him wearing his jet pack and holding a gun while, behind him, an American flag ripples proudly in the night air. Then he blasts off, and the flames from his jet pack appear to immolate the flag.
6. The Simpsons, “Amendment To Be” (1996)
For years, various politicians have supported a “flag desecration amendment” that would make it illegal to deface an American flag in any way. The children of Springfield learned about this one day when Itchy & Scratchy got taken off the air and was replaced with a Schoolhouse Rock-style cartoon that taught kids how an amendment gets ratified. The musical segment was based on flag desecration, focusing on how the law should allow police to beat those “liberal freaks” who think it’s okay to set Old Glory on fire. Who knew learning about flag burning could be so fun?
7. The West Wing, “In The Room” (2004)
Season six of The West Wing was definitely hit-or-miss. This was the post-Sorkin era, and the writers tried several moves to keep things fresh. At first, “In The Room” seems like it’s going to be a pretty unremarkable outing when the pre-credits sequence features Penn & Teller making an appearance as themselves, performing at a birthday party for the president’s daughter. The duo sets a copy of the Bill Of Rights on fire, then use that torch to, well, torch an American flag—or do they? Although it’s in the opening scene and mentioned throughout the next 44 minutes, the supposed flag-burning turns out to be a sneaky D-plot for the entire episode, and as such it’s really just the distracting non-scandal for the pertinent characters to discuss while the real action and the plot-point Easter eggs pile up around them: The president has a multiple sclerosis attack while on a plane to a summit in China and is temporarily paralyzed; who should run for president in the upcoming election, because the current vice president’s an idiot; and two of the most loyal White House staffers are both about to quit their jobs.
8. Merle Haggard, “Me And Crippled Soldiers” (1990)
As far back as 1969’s “Okie From Muskogee,” Merle Haggard has been railing against the counterculture and protesting any form of protest he deems unpatriotic. When the Supreme Court ruled that flag burning was constitutionally protected in 1989, the country legend took to his guitar to pen “Me And Crippled Soldiers,” in which he sings, “After all the wars we’ve fought and won to keep Old Glory waving / Today they rule to burn Old Glory down / And only me and crippled soldiers give a damn.” He doesn’t seem to get that disabled veterans might not enjoy being called crippled—but his record company at the time, CBS, did understand, and it refused to release the song. After leaving for a new label, Haggard released the song in 1990, just as America was waving its flag yet again and getting healthy young soldiers geared up up for the Gulf War.
9. Mr. Show, “Spank” (1995)
As paintbrushes are to painting, desecrating the American flag is to performance art. So when David Cross’ coffeehouse revolutionary “Spank” finds that his performance art turns to performance anxiety when he can’t shit or piss on Old Glory, naturally he takes his case to court. The Mr. Show sketch skewers both the rote provocations of your average knit hat-wearing slam poet and the national outcry over what is, at its root, a lot of fury over a fairly lame and predictable act of protest. But more importantly, it leads to a history lesson that explains why so many Americans suffer from constipation.
10. Rage Against The Machine, Saturday Night Live, Woodstock ’99 (1996, 1999)
Rage Against The Machine has been a politically active band since its inception and its members have taken no small amount of heat because of it. But when the band appeared on Saturday Night Live in mid-April of 1996 (right before Tax Day), things got particularly dicey. Rage was scheduled to as a musical guest for the episode hosted by billionaire and ex-Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes. To distance themselves from the host, the band members decided to hang two upside-down American flags for the performance, an idea that was immediately dismissed by the show’s producers during rehearsals. After promising to remove the flags for the taping, the band went back on that agreement and played “Bulls On Parade” after the standard intro from super-duper rich dude Forbes. As soon as the band had departed the stage, they were asked to leave the studio immediately—no second song performance, no polite awkward cast hugs as the credits roll. Woodstock ’99 has gone down in history as a disaster, but Rage’s set was well received, and the band ended it by burning an American flag as they performed “Killing In The Name.”
11. The Goats, “Burn The Flag” (1992)
The defunct hip-hop group The Goats didn’t hold back its opinions about the U.S.A. on 1992’s Tricks Of The Shade. From “Georgie Bush Kids” to “Uncle Scam’s Shooting Gallery,” the album is a funky-yet-scathing indictment of post-Gulf War America. That fury is particularly flammable on “Burn The Flag.” Everyone from then-president Bush to KKK Grand Wizard-turned-politican David Duke are given the bum’s rush by The Goats, who save their most provocative line—“Burn, b-b-burn, b-burn the fucking flag”—for the song’s shout-along chorus.