It's not clear exactly why the American flag went up in the sitting lounge of UC Irvine's student government center. By one account, it was leftover decor from an America-themed party.
In any case, sometime in mid-January, it was tacked to a pale blue wall, where it soon became the object of a power struggle between students who wanted to leave it up and students who wanted to take it down.
On March 5, by a vote of 6 to 4, the take-it-down forces prevailed. The student government's Legislative Council passed a resolution banning the display of any flags in the lounge. The two students who wrote the resolution, Matthew Guevara and Khaalidah Sidney, used stilted, easy-to-mock academic jargon to explain why flags don't belong in the cozy space.
Flags, they wrote, "construct paradigms of conformity." The Stars and Stripes "has been flown in instances of colonialism and imperialism." The lounge is supposed to be "culturally inclusive" and while hanging the flag might be seen as free speech, "freedom of speech in a space that aims to be as inclusive as possible can be interpreted as hate speech."
Yes, their logic was over the top.
On March 7, the student government's Executive Cabinet vetoed the resolution. The flag would remain.
By that time, however, news of the anti-flag resolution had spilled past the borders of Irvine's modern campus. The story was picked up and mangled: UC Irvine banned the American flag!
The backlash was so intense that UC Irvine's chancellor, Howard Gillman, was moved to defend the school, and, in the process, vilified his own students. "It was outrageous and indefensible that they would question the appropriateness of displaying the American flag on this great campus," wrote Gillman.
"Before too long," he vowed, "we will see even more Stars and Stripes at UCI, as we add additional flagpoles near the campus entrance."
Because, you know, that's really what the university needs to be spending its shrinking budget on: flagpoles.
If you lived through the McCarthy era, or the Vietnam era, you know perfectly well that the flag can be used as a cudgel by the forces of right-wing political correctness. "America," went the flag-festooned bumper sticker, "Love it or leave it."
As recently as 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama was called unpatriotic for not wearing a flag pin on his lapel. "I'm less concerned about what you're wearing on your lapel than what's in your heart," Obama said. "You show your patriotism by being true to our values and ideals."
Guevara and Sidney may have misjudged the mood at Irvine, but there was nothing outrageous or indefensible about bringing the matter to a vote.
On Tuesday afternoon, the Legislative Council was slated to discuss overriding the Executive Cabinet's veto of the measure. But the meeting was canceled after school officials received what they described as "a viable threat of violence."
That left a group of flag-waving protesters — most in tea party T-shirts — who had descended on the campus wondering what to do. They meandered over to the school's flagpole, where they engaged students in sometimes heated discussions, duly recorded by a handful of TV news cameras.
"I started researching these kids," said Judi Neal, a conservative Republican from San Dimas. "The six who voted for this are all part of a social justice leadership organization." (I asked her if she was opposed to social justice, and her friend chimed in, "It depends who it's for!")
"This is America," said Neal, 68. "Respect us. Respect our flag. And take your communistic and socialistic ideals and go back wherever you came from. We don't want them here."
Only once did things get very heated. An African American student screamed at the flag wavers as she walked by. When I caught up with her, she refused to tell me her name. But she was shaking with rage. These people don't care about us, she said.
"This is not even an issue — someone took a flag down in some freaking office no one goes into," she said. "Last year, someone put a note that said 'Go back to Africa' in my friend's backpack. There's less than 2% of black students on this campus. That's a huge issue that no one talks about."
Tim Dicorato, a 26-year-old comp lit major, wondered why the flag wavers didn't protest something consequential, like proposed tuition hikes that have roiled UC campuses in the last year.
"This is such a nonissue," he said. "I respect the values behind the flag, but I don't care about the flag itself. Honestly, I don't."
By week's end, the debate got even more absurd. Republican state Sen. Janet Nguyen said she will introduce a bill Friday asking voters to amend the California Constitution to outlaw flag banning at public universities or colleges. "I would not be here today if it were not for the American flag," said Nguyen, who was born in Vietnam.
"I'm not prepared to comment on whether it's legitimate or whether it's political posturing and theater," said UCI Vice Chancellor Thomas Parham. "There is no debate about whether flags are flying. We fly the flag."
FOR THE RECORD
1:31 p.m., March 13: An earlier version of this column incorrectly identified a UCI administrator who commented on the flag controversy as UC Vice Chancellor Robert Parham. He is UCI Vice Chancellor Thomas Parham.
Oh, allow me: Nguyen's move is a brazen act of political posturing and theater on par with the doomed flag-burning amendments that Congress used to take up with appalling regularity.
Her proposal only proves that dopey ideas are just as likely to come out of Sacramento as from a college campus. I cut the kids some slack because they're still figuring things out. But the grown-ups? They've got no excuse.