The United States flag is a the chosen symbol of a people who have formed a great union. Thirteen stripes to represent the original revolutionary colonies. Fifty stars to represent all the states bound together on a common background.
After that its meaning is open to interpretation. There is no official document stating its exact meaning although there is a United States Flag Code 1 containing rules of etiquette for its care and use.
There is a general agreement that the flag gained meaning as a symbol of American nationalism at the outbreak of the civil war. From that time it was flown more commonly by private citizens. Prior to then it was more likely to be displayed by businesses or government institutions.
There isn’t too much controversial information above I don’t think.
But then I go and say this.
I do not believe the U. S. Flag represents our military. I believe the U.S. Flag represents us. Us citizens. All of us. I believe the military represents our country’s interests when we send it abroad on missions of war, or peacekeeping, or otherwise, and that is why our soldiers appropriately bear the flag’s image. They represent our sovereignty as a nation2 and our democratic ideals. Our fellow citizens serve in the military, often at great or complete personal cost, to fulfill some of the necessary duties of our democracy.3
There are other duties as well. We have stated that we believe in justice and equality for all. We have taken that responsibility on, in words at least. Our level of success in fulfilling these duties could use some careful examination and it seems like a more meaningful way to honor our veterans than fighting over the flag. We don’t want to end up in a position of having to say, “That freedom you fought and suffered and died for? We squandered it.” “Why?” “Well, see there was this thing about kneeling at sporting events…and long story short we just couldn’t respect each other. So…sorry I guess.”
Used in this way, the flag becomes a true and more useful symbol of who we are.
Which brings me back to the issue of respect for the flag.
As I stated above, I believe the flag should represent all of us. A symbol of our union. As such, its role is not to soothe us into a sense of satisfaction with how great we are, but to remind us of the responsibilities we committed to when the founding document of our nation was written. That means, it is the perfect symbol for the expression of dissatisfaction. The flag is exactly what we should use to signal that something is wrong with our democracy. Used in this way, the flag becomes a true and more useful symbol of who we are.
The fetishization of patriotism by professional sports organizations, as one example, cynically re-channels our sense of service and responsibility into simple pride which is easily manipulated. These organizations are paid4 to bludgeon us with a one-dimensional vision of what patriotism is. How big does a U.S. Flag have to be to overwhelm us emotionally? Is a football field really big enough for that? Are we supposed to be using the flag as a party favor? 5 6 We get pretty excited if a singer hits that extra high note in “the land of the free,” verse, but a kneeling player just harshes our buzz. He’s like that guy who raises his hand when the boss says ‘any more questions?’ at the end of a two hour staff meeting so everybody has to stay another 30 minutes.7 Maybe the National Football League or Major League Baseball don’t get to use use the endorphin rush of patriotic fervor to sell seats and then turn around and complain when the plan backfires and their revenue takes a hit.
I understand that people have enormous emotional reactions to perceived slights against the military by associating protest with the flag or the national anthem. But I’ve also learned that when you feel that strongly about something it’s probably worth unpacking those feelings a little bit. Or a lot. If we lose a loved one, we struggle to find meaning in that loss. If a person’s life is lost in service to our country, we don’t want to lessen the magnitude of their sacrifice by casting doubt on the integrity of our nation’s motivations. But doesn’t it also make sense to honor such sacrifice with a ruthless insistence on integrity from the institutions they died to protect? Would it ever be possible that someone whose patriotic identity is closely tied to revering the flag could understand protest and dissent as profoundly American acts?
From the most recent controversy. One man takes a knee in protest and states that he feels our country is ignoring the issues and concerns of black citizens. He is portrayed as a grandstanding opportunist. Another man breaks with his team’s decision to skip the playing of the national anthem. He comes out by himself to salute the flag. He is applauded as a hero.
To me, this second man is already a hero because he served in our military which is a personally heroic act. But if we immediately assume the first man is grandstanding, why do we assume the second man isn’t doing the same thing? He certainly got a lot of attention for what he did, yes? Well, I’m willing to assume that he is acting sincerely according to his beliefs. But I am going to assume that the first man was acting with sincerity as well. I have no reason to believe otherwise.
We need to sort this out. Is the difference that one act indicts us and other lets us off the hook? If that is an oversimplification, than we admit, at least, there is complexity here. Personally I feel that the anger we are feeling with each other right now over what is patriotic, is sitting atop a pile of ugliness that frightens and saddens us when we have to consider it. It’s a lot more comforting to celebrate being the country that helped defeat Hitler and landed a man on the moon than it is to face some of the more sordid aspects of our past and current behavior.
I love this country. And I like a definition of patriotism that focuses on my responsibilities to my fellow citizens. When I see someone who has a problem with the way things are in this country, when they send up that flare, my duty as a fellow citizen, a co-member of a profound union, is to try and lift them up so that when I stumble they can do the same for me.
- The NFL’s abuse of the flag code goes curiously unmentioned in all the posts of outrage over kneeling. ↩
- More on this in a future missive. ↩
- Though it pains me that this feels necessary, I’ll briefly state my opinion of those who serve in our military. Until such time we become men as we like to think of ourselves, and not men as the fearful and hateful creatures that we are, there will be wars. Men and women will try to choose just courses of action, and they will fight.
The men and women who serve in our military deserve everything that we can give them. They deserve lifelong medical care. If they serve in combat theaters, they deserve a safe and comfortable home to live in when they return. I wouldn’t have a problem with veterans having free everything. We should provide those things. And we should do everything in our power to stop sending them off to war in the first place. ↩
- One report of many: NFL teams reportedly received tax dollars to hold military tributes. ↩
- See U.S. Flag Code ↩
- I was a Boy Scout in my youth and I learned some (there are many) rules of etiquette for handling the flag. I still make an effort to keep the flag from touching the ground. I know how to properly fold a flag. I half-consciously check to see if the the U.S. Flag is positioned in the proper order when displayed with other flags. To the extent that these behaviors represent some sort of civic awareness in me rather than a programmed response I was taught years ago, they fade in importance to the value of tying this powerful symbol to legitimate dissent. ↩
- That guy is annoying as hell. You’ve got places to be. But every now and then he asks his question and two weeks later everyone gets a raise. Maybe we listen to that guy’s issue and we all end up better for it. ↩