What kid doesn’t love the American flag?
Every year when the 4th of July rolls around, everybody trots out their grills, the hamburgers and hotdogs, brown beans, the potato salad. We sit in the sweltering shade and drink our beers and lemonade, or perhaps we run around like crazy people half the day and then jump in the pool and collapse. Later on, there come the parades and the fireworks, and then we go home.
By day’s end, you’re hot, sweaty, and tired. You nonetheless feel content, because you live in a great country, which Americans like you acknowledge on that day by flying the ubiquitous red, white, and blue banner, the symbol of all that’s best and brightest in America. As a kid, you associate the flag with summer fun, but you also begin to associate with it your dim but growing awareness that life is good because you are an American.
Then you grow up, and you learn that this flag represents a rich tapestry of great and noble ideals that for generations across the globe has inspired great admiration and emulation: freedom from tyranny, equality before the law, peace with justice for all, a respect for differences, sanctuary and protection for the oppressed and the foreign-born.
Best of all: out of many one. Regardless of who you are, where you come from, what you look like, how much you earn, you are one of us. All are welcome here in America.
What a great country this would be if it truly lived up to the tenets of its own ideals.
It of course does no such thing. America has never lived up the fullness of its promises, which is why, when Americans hit the streets to protest the nation’s failings, the American flag goes with them.
In this context, the flag reminds observers of the noble, lofty, and unfulfilled promises our democracy has made to its citizens. It reminds us that societies can only function when both sides of its social compact are fulfilled. We work, vote, volunteer in the community, pay our taxes. We do our part, so now you (the government) need to do yours by governing faithfully, honestly, and justly. The Stars and Stripes has always been, among other things, a challenge to the conscience of all who behold it.
Do better, it says. Be better.
In wartime, the flag has also been used to rally Americans together to act in concert towards one overarching goal (in this case, pulling together to win an armed conflict). In peacetime, it has symbolized the great things that Yankee ingenuity and know-how can invent or achieve.
I once used to be proud of our flag, but times have really changed. The country has changed too, and as you may have noticed — unless you live under a rock — it has not changed for the better.
The voices of regressive, racist, anti-government extremists have grown louder and their messages more ugly and divisive over the last generation. Such elements have increasingly hijacked the American flag and reinterpreted it to fit their own messaging purposes.
Gone are the traditional, uplifting appeals to the grand, noble sentiments of old that the Stars and Stripes once evoked. Gone is the commitment to national unity. The American flag no longer means what it means.
This degradation of American symbols started abuilding half a century ago. Remember those stupid American flag pins that rightwing pols all used to wear on their lapels? It started as a flag pin craze that took off during the Nixon years, during which Nixon administration members took to wearing them as an implied slap at the loyalty of their political opponents. Nixon and his people were basically saying this: We’re more patriotic than you liberal cowards and weaklings. We love our country more than you, so don’t you dare question us when we make war in America’s name! America: my country, right or wrong!
Flag pins came back into vogue again during the paranoid, reactionary afterglow of the 9/11 attacks. The silent rebuke implied by these pins had become so mainstreamed that in April 2008, a debate moderator actually questioned presidential candidate Barack Obama’s patriotism because he did not wear one.
Obama had worn one in the weeks after 9/11, but then, he noticed “people wearing a lapel pin but not acting very patriotic.” What a surprise.
“I decided I won’t wear that pin on my chest,” he went on to explain. “Instead, I’m going to try to tell the American people what I believe … and hopefully that will be a testimony to my patriotism.”
But it wasn’t good enough. The racists and rightwing scolds continued questioning his not just his patriotism, but his Americanness. So he started wearing a flag pin every day going forward.
It was the same with Colin Kaepernick’s symbolic taking of the knee to protest police violence against blacks. He was “disrespecting the flag,” you see, by refusing to knuckle under to pressure from the powers that be, an act he paid with by later being booted out of the NFL.
The right wing had begun using the American flag as a weapon with which to bully dissenters into conformity, or at least to shut them up. In the eyes of people like this, the national banner no longer stands for the ideals all Americans once held in common. As the Trump era began, our national banner had already come to symbolize the narrow, backward-looking ideology embraced by a shrinking minority that had abandoned persuasion for bullying and demagoguery.
It has since gotten even worse since then.
If I had a dime for every time I’ve seen news photos of the Stars and Stripes paired side by side with the Stars and Bars or Nazi flag at rallies staged by white supremacists, neo-Nazis, gun-rights fanatics, anti-government lunatics, and anti-maskers, I’d never have to work again. To them, America means white Christians, or anarchy, or sympathy for treason and insurrection, or violence without consequence or accountability, or an exaltation of self-destructive selfishness over self-sacrifice, common sense, and the common good. It means subtraction, not addition. Less unity, less peace, less love, less diversity, less sanity.
The direct opposite, in other words, of the old motto: out of many, one.
I’ll say it again: the American flag doesn’t mean what it means anymore. So now I hate the sight of it. Truly, I loathe it. Rather than visually representing the ideals that unite us, it calls to mind the moral, spiritual degradation and disintegration this country has experienced in the last generation. When we make it equivalent to the flags of those evil regimes that fought wars to preserve the right to own human beings or to mass-exterminate them to serve a monstrously racist ideology, we desecrate this symbol far worse than by burning it.
As far as I’m concerned, the Stars and Stripes is no longer the flag of the United States, and we should probably all burn our flags to protest America’s grievous self-betrayal. I probably wouldn’t have the stomach to light it up because of the sentimental memories I still have about that old piece of red, white, and blue cloth. Lord knows I sure would like to, though, not because I hate America, but because I hate what America is turning into, which this accursed freak flag now symbolizes.
The good news is that the conservatives who have turned us into the Fractured Hellscapes of America appear poised to receive the biggest electoral thrashing in half a century. Perhaps the incoming Democrats who will now control the White House and possibly the House of Representatives can set the ship of state back upright again.
This, too, will all pass eventually. Our national mass psychotic episode will subside, and people will learn again how to manage their differences and live peacefully side by side. Again — eventually — Americans will embrace the credo by which we have lived for most of our life as a nation.
Out of many, one.
Until then and probably not for a long time to come, I have no wish to lay eyes on the symbol of our current distempers. Meanwhile, anyone got a match?