Before Christmas we chatted about the Swiss flag, and how its colors and dimensions are not rigidly defined. Can you imagine that in America?
The American flag is more complexly symbolic than the Swiss flag, but American schoolchildren all learn its meaning early in life. And Betsy Ross is venerated like a Catholic saint (with similarly dubious miracles). Consider also the host of proscriptions around the American flag. Rules for its proper use and care, how high it may be raised, how to dispose of it, etc. are all codified in the official U.S. Flag Code.
Keep in mind that, according to flag etiquette, the American flag must never be stepped upon; not only that, it may not even touch the ground. The flag is reserved for the heavens alone; the sublunar earth disgraces it, even though that ground is part of the nation the flag represents. Could the Flag Code state any more clearly that the flag is the symbol of a nation composed not of people and land but foremost of the symbolic and the sacred?
Ponder also that the latest attempt to pass a constitutional amendment against flag burning failed in the 2006 Senate by one vote. It passed the House by a large margin. Many state and local organizations have requested such an amendment, despite repeated Supreme Court rulings against similar local statutes. The logic for such an amendment makes sense in its way; in a textbook case of metonymy, schoolchildren (and, more sporadically, adults) pledge allegiance to the nation by pledging allegiance to the flag. The flag is the nation; burning it, argue the proponents of the amendment, is tantamount to treason. To those who believe this, burning the flag is a direct assault on the nation--and therefore transcends the guarantees of free speech.
All of these complex rules and regulations, and the strong emotions the American flag engenders, proves one thing beyond all doubt:
It is that rarest of cases where symbolism is so powerful that it fully actualizes in the earthly realm.