Hey, is it my flag, too?
When I was 8, my father bought a flagpole, mounted it to our house, and raised the stars and stripes. I gazed at the American flag with enormous pride, feeling like a member of an important club.Every July Fourth I plastered my bike with red, white and blue crepe paper, weaving it through the spokes and wrapping it around the handlebars. Two small American flags fluttered from my hand grips during my hometown parade.At my grade school, we stood at our desks, faced the flag, placed our hands over our hearts and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. There was no goofing around during the pledge; it was all serious business in that age of duck and cover.When I joined the Boy Scouts – Troop 101 in Wilmette, Ill. – we met at an American Legion hall, where we saluted the flag in our uniforms, standing at attention, proud to be Americans.As a scout, I learned that it was a sacred duty to address the flag with proper protocol. I learned how to fold it, care for it, honor and respect it. Dutifully and obediently, I adored the flag. My love for the flag was unconditional.That’s because of what it represented to me then: George Washington, the farmers of Lexington and Concord, Paul Revere, the Liberty Bell, Betsy Ross, “the Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “America the Beautiful,” “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the Battle of New Orleans, the Alamo, Appomattox, Iwo Jima, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the Berlin Airlift.The unconditional part ended in high school with the Vietnam War, with cross-legged monks burning like human torches, with My Lai, the draft, and the historic domination of the military-industrial complex. The American flag took on a different symbolism, one for which I found fault.This new flag adorned military caskets, leather biker jackets, T-shirts. The flag was worn as a garment by war protesters, and it was waved in defiance of those protesters. The flag was fought over, as was the confused identity of America.By the end of college, the flag had become the property of American jingoists who used it to promote militarism and economic imperialism. When Nixon was booted out of office and the pall of scandal polluted the presidency, the flag lost its significance altogether.To this jaded young man and millions in my generation, the flag became a symbol of ruthlessness in a Machiavellian world, a banner of conquest and international arrogance, of corruption, exploitation and politics as usual.When I voiced objections about my country, I was told to “love it or leave it.” The flag became a blinder behind which nationalism was unquestioned. The flag was a florid cape commandeered by special interests who wrapped themselves in it with lockstep patriotism.The flag was unfurled briefly after 9/11 as a unifying symbol, a mourning shroud for America and for the world. After Bush launched the Iraq War, it fluttered with shameless irony from gas-guzzling SUVs driven Patton-style through the streets of America.Now the flag drapes the somber parade of military caskets from that war, all carefully hidden so that others might not lose their sense of pride, their belief in what they are told.Is it my flag, too? Can I wave it freely for what I believe, or is its symbolism forever tainted? Can my son fly the flag someday and feel the pride I once felt?The flag has been denigrated by those who use it for profit, privilege, exploitation and domination. It must be reinstated as a symbol of honor, charity, fairness and grace. Only then will I fly it from my home as my father once did.Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.
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