Rally ’round the flag, Irvine edition

UC Irvine flag
It’s always nice to have patriotic visitors to my campus, and wonderful to see members of the community and students engaging in civil discourse.  But the flag controversy is a sideshow that distracts from real issues in the University of California.

OK: the story in brief: One member of the student government’s Legislative Council introduced a resolution to ban all flags from one hallway in the student center, creating what he thought would be a safe space.  The Council very narrowly adopted the measure.  The reported vote was 6-4, with two abstentions.  By my count, the Legislative Council has 19 members, and 7 vacancies.  The flag discussion was clearly not seen as particularly high stakes anywhere else on campus.  In no way can we see this legislative burp as a representation of anything.

Once passed, however, the idea drew immediate opposition and ridicule from the administration and the rest of the student government.  It was the latter that quickly overruled the Legislative Council, and three of the initial supporters posted an apology on the student government’s Facebook page.  Over?  Not quite.  Not close.

Raising the flag offers all kinds  of people a chance to grandstand and an opportunity to distract.  For the tea party visitors above, it was a chance to ridicule the judgment and naivete of all the students, and education in general.  For the badly outnumbered and mostly marginalized Republican members of the State Legislature, it was a chance at a visible and popular issue to organize around.   For national advocacy groups, it was a chance to rail at intolerance on campus and throw around the term, “political correctness” again.   This is the kind of opportunism that makes for successful and sustained advocacy, but it’s a real and terrible distraction from issues that actually affect students.  Right now, as the Legislature considers the state budget, the funding for the university and the tuition that students will have to pay is very much up for discussion.

Elsewhere, pundits worry that the flag debate unfurling may be a type of activism that spreads across America’s campuses.  (Really?  Why pick targets and tactics that generate more opposition and ridicule than support, and that don’t improve your situation?)  Noting a recent Pew survey that finds today’s students more cynical and less attached to institutions and authority, maybe it’s worth considering why.

Our students are told that they have to fund a much much larger share of their education than did their parents or even older siblings, and that it’s not too soon to start saving for their own retirement.  Constantly reminded that they have to look out for themselves–because government won’t help–they are ridiculed for not being sufficiently grateful and deferential to institutions that are ignoring them. Hmm. Promoting patriotism might involve investing in our children–and our future.

Meanwhile, students should pull out those flags when they campaign for their interests.  It IS patriotic to invest in public education, to provide access to excellent and affordable universities, and to reduce the debt burden students face.  Let’s wave the flag for it.


About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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