How I Learned To Love the Red, White and Blue
Some people have short memories.
They remember Vietnam and think: The United States flag stands for imperialism. They recall Panama, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Grenada and think: Unjust foreign intervention. They recollect the Gulf War and its aftermath and think: What will this country not do to protect its precious supply of oil?
For those of us raised during the Vietnam War, the flag represents all that is wrong with this nation. The oppression. The racism. Economic colonialism. Shrinking social safety net. Unfettered greed. The crackdowns against civil disobedience. Even stolen elections.
I confess: These things were on my mind in the aftermath of Sept. 11, when everywhere you looked you saw a sea of American flags.
Disturbed enough by the death and destruction in New York City, I didn't want to be discomfited by the flag. I either had to rearrange my world view, or find another way to look at Old Glory.
Mindless patriotism wasn't gonna help me sleep at night, or feel better about my fellow Americans.
I wrestled with the red, white and blue during many sleepless nights. Then, one day while driving to work, it hit me. I could invest the flag in new symbolism. I could reclaim Old Glory for my United States. The flag, my flag, would represent the totality of this great nation, its great ideals as well as its terrible flaws.
So when I passed a crudely painted flag on a highway overpass, I no longer viewed this flag, like the ones flapping on car antennas at 70 miles per hour, as a declaration of war, as the symbolic equivalent of "my country right or wrong." Instead, I rerouted my circuitry to see the flag as a symbol of one of our strengths: Our sense of community.
Many of my neighbors and compatriots, I surmised, felt as I did. That is, we were horrified at what had taken place in New York City, at the Pentagon and in a remote field in Pennsylvania.
And we were scared.
I felt better when I imagined that the person downshifting in the red Camry next to me was flying a flag as a symbol not necessarily of military strength, but of strength of community. I felt comforted believing that the family in the white minivan in front of me was hurting from the loss of lives, and flying a flag to express sympathy, to mourn, not to indicate a mandate for revenge.
These folks may have been flying the flag for all (in my mind anyway) the wrong reasons. Who knew? It dawned on me that there are many reasons for flying the flag. It is presumptuous to think we know the intent of the flag-bearer. Those who pre-judge flag-wavers as mindless, revenge-prone "patriots," I fear, are a touch elitist. They make assumptions about what kinds of people fly flags. They become some "other," less informed, more jingoistic American.
Sure, many of these "Fightin' Side of Me" archetypes exist. You only have to see one bumper sticker of Uncle Sam pissing on Bin Laden to know it's true. But it's as crass a generalization as blaming all of Islam for the terrorist attacks.
Nonetheless, I haven't been moved to fly a flag, even though I do own one. We bought a heavy-weight cloth version with its 48-stars sewn on -- not one of those modern, cheaper, printed jobs -- at a flea market about a year ago.
My new peace with the Stars & Stripes isn't about flag-waving so much as flag (and community) honoring.
Flags are, inherently, nationalistic symbols, and, in general, nationalism sucks. Nationalism is often invoked to rationalize murderous rampages. The Confederate flag gives me, once a Lynyrd Skynyrd fan, the creeps.
But this is different.
We're not talking about invoking the flag to rally behind an unjust cause, an imperialistic, militaristic adventure overseas, like those we fought surreptitiously in Central America in the '80s.
This time, we have been attacked.
This time, our enemy wants to kill us.
This time, our enemy wants to kill our children.
This is not the Confederate flag, a symbol of a breakaway nation founded on the principle of maintaining an economic system based on slavery (even if cloaked in the mantle of state's rights).
This is the flag raised for the then-colony's right to self-determination, to oppose taxation without representation.
This is Iwo Jima, when the raising of the flag signaled the end of a just war.
This is the Stars & Stripes, a symbol for founding principles that are still, 225 years later, awe-inspiring. We all know the words, even if we forget the meaning. Citizens of the United States live under a system of rules and laws that bestow genuine rights and protections, the right to dissent and freedom of the press being just two that I cherish every day. I have lived, and practiced journalism, in another nation -- one in which writers and editors had to be mindful daily not only of what they covered, but how they phrased their news. Journalists I once worked with in Kenya have been harassed, their publications banned.
Let's not forget: Our right to vote and run for office is protected. Our right to practice our religion -- or not -- is protected. Our rights to privacy, to unlawful search and seizure, to petition ... protected. Sure, within these "protections," some of us are waging an internal struggle with those in our government who seek to limit our freedoms. Our flag stands for this battle, too.
So our freedom doesn't come easy. At least it is enshrined in the Bill of Rights and in our laws. This is not so in many nations.
When I lived overseas I was amazed at how much people from other countries knew about our government, particularly our foreign policy. More often than not, I was the critic. Sure, I once ran into a Palestinian nationalist, who spewed spittle at me while discussing U.S. support for Israel (spittle as metaphorically real as I have felt from my friends when discussing my perspective on the flag). But often the people I spoke with had a great appreciation for our nation's position in the world. I remember in particular a schoolteacher from Australia who argued that without the U.S. presence in foreign lands, more repression would result, with more political and military instability, not less.
I have started to see this in Old Glory now.
But some people have short memories.
The story of Old Glory itself, for instance, is enlightening.
A sailor, Captain Stephen Driver of Salem, Mass., coined the phrase in 1831 when he was given a flag as a gift. The sailor retired to Nashville in 1837, taking his flag with him. But the stars and stripes weren't too popular around Tennessee during the Civil War. According to the Web site , "Rebels were determined to destroy his flag, but repeated searches revealed no trace of the hated banner."
When Union forces captured Nashville in 1862, "folks began asking Captain Driver if 'Old Glory' still existed ... Driver went home and began ripping at the seams of his bedcover. As the stitches holding the quilt-top to the batting unraveled, the onlookers peered inside and saw the 24-starred original 'Old Glory'!
"Captain Driver gently gathered up the flag and returned with the soldiers to the capitol. Though he was 60 years old, the Captain climbed up to the tower to replace the smaller banner with his beloved flag."
Driver's perseverance and belief in freedom (and the Union) in the face of adversity is one of the building blocks of this nation, and one of the legends of the flag that comfort me during these threatening times.
Driver's story told today is the stuff of legends, the equivalent of Washington cutting down that damn tree. Even less told is the story of Ira Hayes, recounted in a haunting "Ballad of Ira Hayes" by the folksinger Peter LaFarge.
Ira Hayes was a Pima Indian from Arizona. He was one of the men caught by photographer Joe Rosenthal raising the flag in that immortalized image from Mount Suribachi taken in 1945. (Reports that that famous photo was staged, by the way, are false.)
Hayes and the Pima Indians were screwed and exploited by the United States. As LaFarge put it:
Down their ditches for a thousand years the waters grew Ira's people's crops,
Till the white man stole their water rights and their sparklin' water stopped.
Now Ira's folks grew hungry, and their farms grew crops of weeds.
When war came, Ira volunteered and forgot the white man's greed.
Hayes returned a hero to the U.S., a determined and proud soldier despite the way the U.S. had treated his people. Reportedly, Hayes refused to be leader of his platoon because, "I'd have to tell other men to go and get killed, and I'd rather do it myself."
He returned an alcoholic, a demon in part fueled by partying at heroes' welcome celebrations. He drifted, found jobs, lost them, got sober, got drunk. Life for Hayes, like that for his people, was harsh and unforgiving. He went to Washington to plead the case of the Pima Indians, but got nowhere.
Eventually, he died in a ditch, officially of "exposure." I may have missed soomething, but in my research I don't find a trace of bitterness. "Drunken" Ira Hayes died proud of his role in World War II.
My flag stands for Ira Hayes as well as Captain Driver. It stands for those who died believing they were fighting for this country in Vietnam, and those who returned home addicted to drugs or overwhelmed by horrors of what they had seen.
The United States is a great, even if tragically flawed nation. But it is my home, and I have chosen a career in alternative journalism because, in a sense, it has made me a professional critic. A job one could hold, arguably, in only a a dozen or so other nations on earth.
I don't know what kind of a war we are in the midst of today. It could be the beginning of World War III, or it could be another foreign adventure to protect a source of foreign oil. Our war on terrorism could be legit (and, hopefully, successful) -- or it could be the rationale for a further crackdown on our civil liberties.
There are a lot of unknowns in the world today. But there is one known: On Sept. 11, 19 guys hijacked four jets and killed up to 6,000 people and eviscerated an international landmark and the symbol of our nation's defense.
I don't think we're any safer for spending the last month bombing a virtually defenseless nation.
And I don't think, as President Bush said on national television, that "they" hate "us" for our freedom. Quite the opposite in fact: "They" think our freedom makes us weak. It's one more reason to invest in the flag the power of our founding principles.
I am determined to salvage something else from the wreckage of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. And that is a long memory. This nation, like any, goes off course. But if we stay focused on the foundations, we can remember that there are many things about this country to be proud of.
As progressive radio commentator Jim Hightower says, "Ours is the flag of the pamphleteers and Sons of Liberty, the abolitionists and suffragists, Populists and Wobblies, Mother Jones and Joe Hill, Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King Jr. -- freedom-fighters all. Too many true patriots struggled and died to bring our democracy this far. We have no right to be quiet. Stand up! Wave our flag! Speak out!"