The Well Actually

Justice Alito’s Politics Are Literally Flying in Our Faces

The Supreme Court judge has been flouting his duties, flying insurrectionist flags at his home while refusing to recuse himself from cases deciding the future of democracy in America. So what are we going to do about it?

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There’s a rule at my parents’ tony lake house neighborhood in deep East Texas, that you’re not allowed to fly “political” flags or even put “political” signs in your yard. As it is in a lot of places, this rule is dictated by the cold, unfeeling hand of the homeowners’ association. All hail the HOA, or else. If you know, you know.

But I happen to know that the cold, unfeeling hand of said HOA is, in fact, the warm, leathery, sun-worn hand of my own father, who doesn’t want the folks who live in his little development to get into big tussles about the signs they put in their yards or the flags they hang on their porches. There are already plenty of arguments to get into down at the marina bar.

“I had to tell [redacted] to take down his Ted Cruz sign,” my dad told me a couple of years ago while we were walking my dog down his piney cul-de-sac. “He’s my candidate, but a rule is a rule.”

Personally, I’d love to watch his neighbors get into it. Sign me up for the jet-ski joust. But while I disagree with my dad about practically everything, I appreciate his commitment to enforcing the rules fairly in his little fiefdom, and his appreciation for the meaning of a flag.

Because, we all know what a flag means, don’t we? That’s exactly what makes Supreme Court Justice Sam Alito’s attempts to downplay his habit of flying insurrectionist symbols at his homes that much more risible. As Marisa Kabas recently wrote: “A flag isn’t so much an expression of an opinion as it is a message of what is—and in some cases, isn’t—welcome. It can be a warning. The person hoisting the flag is establishing ground rules. They’re setting the stage for what kind of home you’re walking into.”

Flags are about as old a means as we humans have of signaling to each other about ourselves. Their potential seems particularly potent now, as it becomes increasingly clear that the institutions we have come to rely on—in many cases, naïvely—to make sense of our world are no longer up to the job, if they ever really were in the first place. 

I am thinking of the interview New York Times executive editor Joe Kahn gave to Semafor in early May. Kahn said covering the serious threats Donald Trump and his insurrectionist-packed Republican Party pose to democracy as, well, serious threats to democracy, would turn the paper into a “propaganda arm” for the candidate not seriously threatening democracy. I am thinking of Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s chummy relationships with legacy media reporters. I am thinking of the breathless, both-sides-y coverage of anti-abortion figures like Jonathan Mitchell and Rebecca Kiessling, and the political press’s endless quest to find out what motivates Trump voters, as if it can’t possibly be as simple as rank bigotry and a thirst for authoritarian rule. I am thinking of Clarence Thomas’s decades-long grift of taking gifts from right-wing machinators, and of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s abominable pardon of Daniel Perry, the racist murderer who killed veteran and Black Lives Matter protester Garrett Foster in 2020. I am thinking of the grimness of American individualism, and our systemic disregard for public health and safety in the ongoing pandemic. I am thinking of cities and universities siccing violent cops on peaceful pro-Palestine, anti-war encampments, and of attempts to ban and ruin technology platforms that average people use to organize against fascism and spread essential information we can’t get anywhere else.

Which brings me back to Sam Alito’s insurrection flags, which are as clear a sign—literally!—as anyone could ask for, that the Supreme Court judge is in the tank for the criminal former president and the decimation of democracy. Not that his legal opinions have ever left much room for plausible deniability on those fronts, but now it is out there flying in plain sight.

This is collusion on a massive scale, and the examples I’ve cited are merely the tips of an iceberg, or perhaps a network of icebergs. This is the result of the interplay of actors disparate and deliberate at every level, from the individual to the institutional, putting a rush order on the end of whatever fragile democratic society we thought we had going for us—whether or not they know it, whether or not they intend to, and whether or not they care.          

I don’t expect I have much else in common with Alito, but I do share this: I’m a flag person. I started designing and flying my own flags at home in Austin a few years ago, when the isolation of the pandemic had me desperate to connect with the community I wasn’t able to find in my usual places: the local coffee shop, the neighborhood bar. Flying pro-abortion, pro-trans, and anti-cop flags felt like a way to shorten the socially distanced gulf between me, my front yard, and the rest of the world.

It’s been an interesting experiment in community building. There have been a couple of late-night attempts to vandalize my flags, but overall, they’ve been a net positive. I’ve met neighbors with whom I might not have connected otherwise, and it’s a neat little dopamine boost to be known for a little public-facing creativity. But there are practical applications as well. I’ve been able to connect curious neighbors with resources and organizations tackling issues they weren’t sure how to get involved in otherwise, and I’ve been introduced to grassroots work I had no idea existed, all because of a myriad “Hey, by the way …” conversations sparked by my signage.

It’s an imperfect method, to be sure. I am reminded of the post-Trump “safety pin” era, and the potential for this kind of signaling to be little more than feel-good liberal self-aggrandizement. Signs of any kind can only be a start. It is, of course, our behavior—over time, consistently, and especially when making tough decisions or making mistakes—that shows whether our values are truly lived or merely symbolic when convenient. I know I haven’t always lived up to what I hope my flags say about me, but that’s rather the point. I see them as important reminders about accountability and possibility, a means of trying to keep myself honest.

My flags scream for me because I cannot scream all the time, though I want to. Especially here in Texas, where local efforts to implement progressive policies in our blue urban geographies are constantly being beaten back by the state’s Republican leadership, they’ve helped me find other folks who feel as screamy as I do. They scream for me because I do not have, as Sam Alito does, the power to shape—or destroy—democracy with a keystroke.

But building community using my little wind-blown billboards is a power I do have, even in the face of attacks on free speech, voting rights, and protest. So I will keep flying my flags. Because while Sam Alito’s flags do scare me—and I believe they’re supposed to—he should be afraid of what mine stand for, too.

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