Requiem for a flag


Flag day is just around the corner. Consecrated by Woodrow Wilson in 1916, the day was meant to give Americans a chance to fly the colors and reflect on our history as a nation. Theories differ as to the precise significance of the flag's colors, but it is generally accepted that red stands for courage and valor, blue for virtue and leadership and white (sic) for purity. While the flag was certainly present at government and other institutions, it was not flown every day everywhere and this holiday, along with Independence Day and, later, Memorial Day, gave common folk a good excuse to hoist the flag for the day.

But measured and modest celebrations just don't cut it in our manifestly destined society, so our use of the flag has changed quite drastically since Wilson's day. It could be argued that patriotic love of country is a virtuous quality, helping to congeal our unity and identity as a society. However, modern America has succeeded in conflating patriotism into nationalism. Instead of celebrating American unity, we have now twisted the flag into a symbol of domination, military might and callous disregard for the rest of the world. Somehow, we are afraid that acknowledging the validity of other countries' existences and power will put us at a disadvantage. Even though we are but a fraction of the world's population, occupying a modest piece of ground, we need to believe (incorrectly) that we are the biggest, the baddest and the best.

It is the flag's misfortune that it is the emblem that has been chosen to represent this fallacious thinking.

Consider the history of the pledge of allegiance. Originally written for school children to celebrate a commemoration for Christopher Columbus (!), it was soon recited in schools across the nation. Later, it found its way into the halls of Congress, eventually becoming a sort of loyalty test for politicians. The modern version of the flag as loyalty test can be seen in the flag pins worn now by virtually every national politician. What started as a personal statement of affection for the flag has now become a required accessory to the politician's working outfit. When candidate Obama was spotted not wearing a flag lapel pin, tongues began to wag and before you could say hope and change, it became a fixture on his garb. If Obama had chosen to continue to refrain from wearing it, he would have been branded (and damaged politically) as unpatriotic or even as being ashamed of the country he wanted to lead. This required group-think (or group-wear, as the case may be) simply cheapens the original gesture and renders the entire exercise meaningless.

But bravado and and unfounded sense of superiority are not the only afflictions that have attached themselves to the flag. Even though the official U.S flag code states that "The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever," we all know how inextricably the image of the flag is tied to advertising. Everything from car dealerships (how could President's Day sales ever get by without them?) to beer cans, to athletes in uniform have now been "branded" with the flag. Not only has the image been co-opted, but in the interests of cost cutting, businesses utilize the cheapest and flimsiest of materials to make the flags that brand them. No matter that in a week or two, the plastic will have started to fade, the edges will be in tatters, and the sheer number of them will ensure that many will be discarded on the side of the street or dropped into the trash. If we embrace the notion that the essence of America is making a buck by any means possible, then this makes perfect sense. But if we think that America should stand for something more noble and valuable, then this crass commercialism is a disgrace that should be condemned and rejected, rather than accepted as simply another tacky gimmick in the arsenal of the sales world.

What would happen if, instead of forcing more and more of us to fly the flag every day and everywhere, there were severe restrictions on when we could have the privilege of flying the flag? What if all nations were allowed to fly any flag but their own? How would we behave in the world if we depended on the goodwill and admiration of other countries to see our flag flying anywhere? How much wind would be taken out of Russia's sails today, if, instead of draping themselves in their flag as they bully their neighbors, they were dependent on those neighbors' good will to fly the Russian flag for them? After the Sept. 11 attacks, America would have seen the flag flown throughout the world, as other countries commiserated with us in our sorrow. Would that not have served us better than wrapping ourselves in the stars and stripes in order to launch an illegal and counterproductive war on Iraq? Of course this will never happen, but if we saved the flag for honoring fallen service members and for flying at polling stations, it would restore actual value and meaning to what has become just another "brand" of commercialism and militarism.

Dan DeWalt writes from Newfane.


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