The Fourth of July is coming and my patriotism is unflagging. Strangely enough, that’s become a bit of a contradiction—not to mention a cool little double-entendre. See, I’ve always loved the American flag, but over the years I’ve reached the point where I don’t wave it anymore. I can’t. The Stars and Stripes have been all but taken away from me.
Flying the flag used to express my simple pride in a nation dedicated to the principles of liberty and justice for all. It used to be a red, white and blue permission slip granting me the freedom to express my sometimes-strident opinions about how we can best live up to those principles.
But now displaying the flag communicates something else entirely. Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.
What message comes through to you when you see an American flag hanging on a front-yard pole, flapping from a car antenna, stickered to a bumper or pinned to a lapel?
Think the person who put it there is against the bombing, invasion and torture the United States has done in Iraq and Afghanistan? Favors sweeping environmental protections? Believes that eliminating weapons of mass destruction ought to start with those in the U.S. arsenal?Favors guaranteeing basic housing, health care and higher education to all Americans? Opposes capital punishment, prayer in public schools and constitutional amendments that ban desecration of the American flag?
But that’s what I mean when I fly the flag—or when I used to, anyway, back before left-of-center perspectives were somehow disconnected from the conventional definition of patriotism. More often, those opinions are considered outright unpatriotic—even anti-patriotic.
Meantime, the conservative right has wrapped itself in the flag, dyed its viewpoints and policies red, white and blue—and when political battles get intense, splatters anyone who disagrees with the colors of suspicion and treason.
How has it come to pass that dissent automatically equals anti-Americanism?
Well, see, it hasn’t.
Consider the ongoing fight about reproductive rights. The law of the United States guarantees a woman’s right to choose whether she will have a baby. In my mind, this is a freedom worth waving the flag about. But it is the dissenters—those who oppose this law of the land, sometimes to the extremes of harassing pregnant women, bombing medical clinics and shooting doctors—who brand their position with the Star-Spangled Banner.
Of course, that’s their right, not to mention a brilliant strategy. But I think it’s time for those of us who dissent on the other side of the conservative agenda to take back the flag—or at least stretch it so that it once again is a symbol of the inclusive right to debate the issues of our time. After all, we’re the ones with history on our side.
Some of those dudes with their pictures on our dollars—like George Washington and Ben Franklin, for instance—were outright radicals. Those who protest the actions of our government today are patriotic and brave supporters of the principles upon which this nation was founded.
Those who seek to limit dissent, invade personal privacy and control how adults can behave in private go against these principles. Yet they are the ones waving the flag.
Some of the United States‚ most prominent symbols of patriotism—the inscription on the Statue of Liberty, the Pledge of Allegiance, the lyrics to “America the Beautiful”—were created by people whose lives were devoted to the kind of political dissent that might be branded unpatriotic today.
Consider the following:
.The inscription on the Statue of Liberty—“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”—was written in 1883 by Emma Lazarus, a well-known poet who ran with socialists. She openly supported the single-tax program of Henry George. Leading British socialist William Morris was her close friend. Lazarus believed in the American Dream, but she wrote the words on the Statue of Liberty to emphasize that this country should be available to even the most oppressed of the world’s people. Especially to them.
.Francis Bellamy of Boston wrote the Pledge of Allegiance in 1892, but he was more famous for delivering controversial sermons portraying Jesus Christ as a socialist. The Pledge was part of a magazine campaign to promote the use of U.S. flags in public schools in celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America. But the Pledge was also a defiant document, asserting the country’s core moral values—“one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”—during an era when capitalism’s individualism begat the greed of the robber barons and the exploitation of the working class.
.The lyrics to “America the Beautiful” were composed by progressive poet Katharine Lee Bates, a lesbian who had a decades-long, live-in relationship with economist Katharine Coman. Both women were professors at Wellesley College, outside Boston, and both were active in reform movements involving workers’ rights, the inner-city poor and women’s right to vote. The book that presented the lyrics was called America the Beautiful and Other Poems, and those “other poems” included several that excoriated the United States for its imperialistic policies in the Philippines. In that context, the closing words of the poem take on the tone of strong moral resolution: “And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea.”
Then again, it’s not like left-leaning dissenters of the past half-century haven’t played a part in losing their grip on the flag. During the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, the occasional desecration of the flag by civil rights activists and anti-war protesters was such a powerful and polarizing technique that the image of flag burning became associated with their causes.
The same is true of the anti-globalization protesters of the past 10 years. Even when they color their protests red, white and blue, they usually alter the image. Maybe the stars are replaced by a peace sign. Maybe they are replaced by corporate logos to satirize their charge that the United States is corporately controlled. One group outfitted the American flag with shopping bag handles.
I happen to believe that the right to desecrate the American flag is another of the things that makes it so great—another protected form of free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment—but in the real world it’s not the best way to win the war of public opinion. Its long-term result has been to allow the right to seize the flag as a partisan symbol, giving its candidates an advantage they still enjoy. This strategy has been so successful that lots of leftists—like me—have come to accept it.
To reverse that trend, we’ve got to get comfortable with our flag again. In addition to their placards of protest, demonstrators must wave the star spangled banner. Campaigners must use both car bumpers and coat lapels—one side with a sticker or button naming their candidate, the other with the image of the flag.
And this Fourth of July, in the name of love and dedication to improving a country that still doesn’t stand behind all that it says it stands for, fly the flag. MTW