Published on September 15th, 2013 | by Kevin


Episode #29: The Flag and the Flame

Those Two Images

This episode is about flag burning. But of course it’s not just about that. Annenberg Professor Carolyn Marvin recounts the time in 1989 when she burned a flag in front of the students in her class, “The History and Theory of the Freedom of Expression.” The story is not about a radical, unpatriotic professor, as many have assumed. It’s about a pedagogical exercise to kick-start her students’ thinking about the relationship between theory and reality.

Enjoy the episode!


(In order)

“Don’t Give Up” by Washed Out

“Luggage” by Chapelier Fou

“Secret Handshake – Radio Edit” by Chapelier Fou

“Go” by Ski Beatz

“Mysterieux Message” by Chapelier Fou

“The Nuclear Family” by Goddamn Electric Bill

“Freedom of Speech” by Above the Law




A woman says, “Everything we do is music.” A dish breaks, a synthetic chord shrieks, Morse code is tapping out 3620 repeatedly. Marshall McLuhan says, “Acoustic space: boundless, directionless, horizonless…” Over McLuhan, different voices say each number in 3620, and then they say “36,” “20.” A man says, “Terrific!” A thick chord glisses up to erupt into a new song (“Don’t Give Up” by Washed Out). The song fades  as the voice over begins.


KEVIN: Welcome to 3620. Podcasting from the basement of 3620 Walnut St. by the doctoral students of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. I’m Kevin Gotkin. Today on the podcast, a piece produced by yours truly from an interview with one of our own faculty members, Carolyn Marvin. Hope you enjoy it.


The music fades out slowly.



In the dawn of 1989, the Institute for Contemporary Art on Penn’s campus opened a new exhibition. It was the first solo exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe who was an enfant terrible of contemporary photography. The show was called “The Perfect Moment.” In her essay about the collection, the curator writes, “Mapplethorpe captures the peak of bloom, the apogee of power, the most seductive instant, the ultimate present that stops time and delivers the perfect moment into history.”


This might refer to what Mapplethorpe was doing with his camera to capture his portraits, still lifes, and nudes, or it might not. It might instead refer to the debate that the collection stirred up after it left Penn, when people from around the country cried foul over what they saw as federally funded obscenity. The perfect moment is not just for the camera, but for the controversy, a general heat under the collar.


Well, this story is about another perfect moment, one that was delivered into history just a few months later in 1989, also here on Penn’s campus.


MUSIC: “Luggage” by Chapelier Fou


CM: I’m Carolyn Marvin. I teach at the Annenberg School for Communication. I have for a very long time.


This story begins in the fall of 1989, when Professor Marvin was teaching a course she originally developed as a graduate student.


CM: It is the single course that I have continued to teach across the 30 years, or whatever horrifying number it’s been, you know, that I’ve been around.


The course was called “The History and Theory of the Freedom of Expression.”


CM: And it’s a real important course to me because I, you know, it has an obvious relevance for kids that are communication majors, but I see it as being a course for citizens because I think it’s incredibly important that citizens have an opportunity to think about what the arguments about freedom of expression are.


The readings were designed as a trip into Western political philosophy. Students start with the birth of classic liberalism, moving through some of the heavy hitters of 18th and 19th century philosophers, and survey some decisive Supreme Court decisions of the 20th century. Now this last part, about more contemporary legacies of the crises of free speech is important because…


CM: you know, these are undergraduates and they don’t naturally relate to the 18th century, so you have to make it clear to them that these arguments are still going in the kind of situations in which they come up because they are the same arguments that go back to the 18th century and 19th century.


And so at the beginning of each semester, Professor Marvin would set up a tough question.


CM: Some contemporary debate that’s roiling the society and that they can have a debate about.


CM: So, in the, in the September of 1989, it was pretty obvious to me what the, you know, what the things could be, I mean, free speech is a series of dilemmas, essentially, and so, you use the dilemmas to, to focus the opportunity, to think about what are the arguments. So, that, at the end of that Supreme Court term in 1989, May or June or whenever it was, the Court handed down a 5-4 decision you know, that’s always the exciting kind. Um, in a case called Texas v. Johnson.


In that case, a young guy named Joey Johnson was protesting outside the Dallas City Hall during the Republican National Convention against the politics of the Reagan administration. He poured kerosene on a flag and lit it. He appealed his charges all the way up to the Supreme Court, where the justices were charged with deciding whether Johnson’s burning of the flag – an action – could be considered speech. Partly because Johnson and the other protesters were loudly chanting things like “America, the red, white, and blue, we spit on you,” Justice Brennan wrote in the majority opinion that the act was “sufficiently imbued with elements of communication to fall within the scope of the First Amendment.” This meant it was now legal to burn a flag.


CM: I mean this was a very high point in the culture wars and so it wasn’t the only symbol that people were worried about, you know, but this occasioned, a huge amount of community discussion and it was, you know, it was just the perfect, um, it was just the perfect kind of dilemma.


MUSIC: “Secret Handshake – Radio Edit” by Chapelier Fou


Now, let me set the stage for a second. Classes start in the fall of ’89 right as Congress is reconvening to debate legislation that could be a workaround to the Johnson decision. And the class meets three days per week. So Professor Marvin decides to assign them a short, introductory exercise in that first week.


CM: So, I assigned it, you know, next time you gotta bring in a little essay that says whether or not Americans should be able to burn the flag.


As she starts grading them right away.


CM: And what really struck me and what was really interesting to me about their reaction was that they weren’t thinking, they were just basically engaging in sloganizing. You know, I thought, man, you know, I’ve really got to get them to think about this.


Now here it comes. Here comes the birth of the perfect moment.


CM: And so I thought about it and I got this idea, which was ‘I know, I’ll burn an American flag in front of them but I won’t say anything, so that it won’t be connected to speech, and they can’t judge it on the speech. It’ll be on the gesture itself.’


CM: So, I went out and I got two flags, you know, I didn’t want one of these little tiny 5×8 flags that you wave at the parade, I wanted a real flag, you know, that there was no mistaking what it was. So I went to the drugstore and I got these flags, and of course, they’re all polyester now, right? And so, I wanted one to practice with, you know, if you’re going to burn the flag in front of the class, you’d better do it right. So, I, you know—started to do it in the classroom and I realized this will never work, you know, practicing in the classroom because you’ve got smoke detectors and it would just all be crazy and besides which the fumes from this polyester would probably kill everyone. So, so what I did was I, you know, before the class, the next class, I soaked the flag in lighter fluid, essentially, and I stuck it in an 8×10 manila envelope, you know, so that, this was what I was going to do, so that they wouldn’t see it, you know, and then I what I was going to do, and then I had it all ready, and, um, and then I had this big tub of water on the porch outside the school, you know, and basically my plan was to take them all down there and light the thing and get it good and lighted, you know, outside and then put it in the water and then we’d go back and discuss it. So, this was my plan.


There were a few things that didn’t go exactly according to this plan, however. Another faculty member had strolled by Professor Marvin’s office, had seen the flag, and asked about it. And once he heard the plan, he said, “Don’t you think you’d better tell the dean?” Well, here’s another complication: the dean? She was brand new to the Annenberg School. In fact, she was in her first week on the job.


CM: It really hadn’t occurred to me, I mean I had thought briefly about it. Would anybody outside care? But, I really thought no! This is for my class, that’s what this is about. But you know, the more I thought about it — I had about an hour to think about it — I thought, yeah, I probably ought to… But, what am I going to do if she says no? And then I thought, well, I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. I’m just going to assume this is what I’m doing and I’m just letting her know as a courtesy.


So she leaves a message for the dean and just before class is about to start, she gets a call back from the dean’s secretary.


CM: “I don’t know what this is about, but the dean says fine.”


Game. On.


MUSIC: “Go” by Ski Beatz


They get to class and Professor Marvin leads them down to the back patio of the Annenberg building.


CM: So I whipped out the flag at a certain point and the shock on the face of the students, because it was pretty clear what I was about to do down there on the porch, and I had two — I had some very large males in the class. You know, college students, they’re big strong folks, and a couple of — two of the males started moving towards me like they were going to take the flag away, and so I put this thing behind my back and they said, “Can we take that away from you?” Internally I’m thinking this is pretty funny. These two big strong males are asking me if they can take the flag away from me, but then I was thinking I can’t have a tug-of-war with these students, and I was thinking this is interesting — they are trying to choose between two different kinds of authority. One is the sort of cultural one — authority of the flag, which they think shouldn’t be burned; and me, my authority as a teacher, and also a female teacher, which is somebody against whom male force is frowned and so on. So I took advantage of their hesitation and I said no! They said, “Can we take this away from you,” and I said no, we’ll discuss it in a minute. And so I thought, “Get this thing burned.” So I pulled it out and I burned it, I got it going, and nobody else in the class said anything, and some of them turned away. Some of them actually kind of wouldn’t look at it, so then I plunged the flag into the water and we went upstairs and we started talking about it.


It was clear to Professor Marvin that the students truly did not expect this.


CM: Totally shocked. Totally shocked […] And I don’t think everybody was totally shocked but there were a couple of them they were pretty open mouthed […] It definitely made an impression; of course, that was what I wanted to do because language is one thing, and demonstrating it is another. And the sort of pedagogical issue here was to get them out of their slogans and their sort of pet theories, and into “What does it really mean to burn a flag?” But also not to say anything at the same time. […] There’s a lot of things that burning the flag could mean and I didn’t want to let language be the issue. I wanted them to think really about gesture of speech. That was really the exercise there.


It was because Professor Marvin had thought of this exercise so narrowly as a pedagogical one, so narrowly intended for her students, that she did not expect what was coming next.


CM: So after class I went back to my office, and I don’t know what the case was but I happened to walk out of the building for some reason. I was maybe going across the street to get some lunch. Then I was approached by this student, and he comes up to me and he says, “I understand that you burned a flag today in your class, and I’m from the Daily Pennsylvanian and we’ve called the American Legion, and the American Legion says that because you didn’t burn the flag for a political purpose it wasn’t legal, and we want to talk to you about that.”


CM: And as soon as it was in the Daily Pennsylvanian then it was picked up by the Philadelphia Inquirer, and then after that all hell broke loose. I mean, it was, it was amazing.




CM: I began getting free copies of “The Revolutionary Worker”


CM: My answering machine filled up with, you know, millions of invitations to be on various, uh, talk shows all over the country


CM: The next time we had class, uh, the local TV station came into the building and wanted to get into my class


CM: The ROTC came in and visited the Dean and the ROTC came and visited me in uniform.


CM: Just huge number of letters and many of them quite threatening


CM: Lots of clear, implied physical threats


CM: My husband was sufficiently concerned that we got a German Shepherd


CM: In March the Pennsylvania state legislature passed a resolution condemning the burning of an American flag in a classroom […] they condemned it and they also asked the police commissioner to investigate me and all this kind of stuff


CM: I do remember thinking during the flag burning and, you know, the endless pieces on the news and the endless invitations to debate and all this kind of stuff-, I remember thinking, “I wonder if this is actually going to come to an end.”


MUSIC: “Mysterieux Message” by Chapelier Fou


Professor Marvin also had to give an account of what happened to Walter Annenberg, the benefactor who founded the school just about three decades earlier.


CM: It was pretty easy to imagine that he wasn’t going to be incredibly pleased by this


So the dean got an account to Annenberg himself.


CM: He had been ambassador, of course, to the court of St. James, you know, and I had met him a couple of times, and um, so a message came back to me, and the message was Annenberg had had a, I think, kind of a stammer as a kid and he had a somewhat stilted but very genteel way of talking as an adult. And so, the message that came back to me from Annenberg, who heard this, was– he was pretty mild at this point. He said “Oh, for the ability to resist the opportunity to score”.


He had basically accused her of being a show-off. As things progresses with the media attention, Annenberg became less charitable in his view of the situation.


CM: Well, then he became pretty unhappy. And, uh, he was very interested in being seen as a respectable person and, you know, he’d done this wonderful thing, fund the school. And, and now, all these people were mad about this professor who didn’t take seriously the, um, wonderfulness of the American flag and symbols and so on and so forth. So, he went to the dean and wanted her to dissociate the school from me, wanted her to make a statement doing that. And, of course, she understood what the implications of that would be and that she couldn’t do that, uh, and, and us have any academic credibility and world credibility and all the rest of it. But she did come to me and she said, ‘Would you write him a letter of apology?’ And I said, ‘No.’ Cuz I didn’t have anything to apologize for. I had done something that was legal. I had done something that was, uh, pedagogically, uh, right, as far as I was concerned. And I would have never been able to live with myself again if I had backed down from that just because people were mad about it, you know. So, I said, ‘No, I wouldn’t. I said, ‘But I will write him a letter explaining why I did it.’


CM: But I have this really deep seated belief against, I would say, some of the advice of my colleagues that the community is entitled to ask questions about what you’re doing as a teacher. They’re just not entitled to tell you what you can do as a teacher, so I wrote it all out, you know, and it was long and it was very–, it had been a long time since I had written a letter longhand in my writing. I had to do a lot of pages over, but I finally got the thing done. And it went to Walter, and, you know, we never heard about it again, although, I mean, I don’t think he was completely convinced but I think he was mollified.


So as things died down after this incident, Professor Marvin was able to use the ordeal as an important teaching moment throughout that semester. The students really seemed to think deeply about what had happened. What stuck, though, was this accusation from Annenberg, the accusation of showing-off that many people leveled against her after the incident.


CM: I was really sorry it had been such a a source of distress to people, but I never thought it was pedagogically wrong.


CM: And, you know, it was interesting the reasons that they thought that I was a bad teacher. One of the most common was that, you know, this was a kind of semiotic excess, that I didn’t have to, you know. It was the same kind of thing that was you know, the same kind of thing that was the, that was implied by the administration statement that you know, there are other ways to to treat this and why did I have to burn a flag to do it? Why didn’t I just–and of course, what they usually mean was why didn’t you talk about it in language? And, you know, and of course it was, you know, they said it wasn’t necessary where, what you did, and of course, it wasn’t necessary. That was not why I did it. I did it because it was compelling, and because it was dramatic and because it framed the issue in a way that the students really had to think about and confront


At one point while I was talking with Professor Marvin, I did want to press her a little bit.


[TAPE] K: So can I, I’m going to push back a little bit.


CM: Sure, please do.


[TAPE] K: In the time that you were cooking it up. You did not imagine?


CM: No. […] That’s so funny because people ask me about that a lot. No, I really didn’t imagine, which is why I was, you know, I mean, don’t ask me why I didn’t imagine but I didn’t.


MUSIC: “The Nuclear Family” by Goddamn Electric Bill


CM: My fundamental position was and remains that the flag belongs to everybody and the flag belongs to, it has a symbolic democracy and everyone is entitled to interpret it as they wish and to treat it as they wish. It includes the Republicans, the Democrats, includes the Klu Klux Klan. It includes the Chamber of Commerce. It includes everybody and that’s the whole point.


Professor Marvin points out that it’s not just about interpreting the flag, but also using it. Wearing it, cutting it up, making it part of a gesture. This was the core of the exercise all along, this fissure between speech and gesture.


When I ask Professor Marvin to reflect on this whole experience now, looking back, it’s pedagogy that she repeatedly returns to. This moment, this perfect moment, is a lesson in what it means to be a good teacher.


CM: My goal as a teacher is to make sure that whichever side of that divide my students end up on, that sooner or later they discover themselves to be in very uncomfortable moral territory by staying consistent with what they think their side is. Because the lesson here is that theory is not life and no theory – while theory can be very useful in helping you understand exactly what your presuppositions are and in guiding a kind of perspective that you take seriously, there will be things that challenge that so seriously that you don’t really know whether or not you believe that theory anymore. And I want them to be there. Because I think that uh politics that blindly promote a single theory of the world are very dangerous politics for precisely this reason. So, you know, have at it. You know, whatever your view is, I want you to find yourself worrying about something where your view doesn’t really solve the problem in a really satisfying way to you. So that’s my pedagogical underneath.


This story illustrates for us, I think, a tangled skein of thinking about our flag. It’s not just about speaking, but about gesturing. And it’s not just about that either. It’s about looking, too.


CM: You know, one thing I often thought about is how beautiful a burning flag looks. What a good image it makes, you know, because it’s this red and this blue, primarily, and then some white. And then this kind of bright yellow-orange that takes this very orderly pattern and, you know, dissolves it into the sort of formlessness of the, of the yellow. So, I think it’s a very compelling image. Fire is, itself, very hypnotic. And so, there’s something about this very, at least for Americans, very powerful image of the flag itself, which we all learn is a powerful image from very young, whatever our, um, relationship to it at a later time. That sort of never goes away, that piece of it. And to put those two powerful images together, the flag and the flame is just something that it’s hard to turn away from.


MUSIC: “Freedom of Speech” by Above the Law


Major thanks to Professor Marvin for sharing her story with us. We’re back next Monday with a new episode on 3620.


The views expressed on this podcast are those of its producers and do not represent the Annenberg School for Communication, its faculty, staff, or student body. The 3620 Podcast is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-commercial-Share-Alike International 3.0 license. That means you can remix, report, or recycle any of the content as long as you’re not making money, you don’t change the credits, and you share it under the same license.

Tags: , , ,

About the Author

Back to Top ↑