Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Betsy's Needle

What better day to muse upon my love/hate relationship with the Stars and Stripes than Flag Day. As a child in the 50's, the US flag was a sacred and respected symbol, dutifully saluted every morning with a heartfelt pledge of allegiance. As a 60's teenager and hippie, the flag became a symbol of nationalism at its worst, a symbol of warmongering, bullying and chest beating. To honor the flag was to profess solidarity with those who used the flag for all the wrong reasons - to promote the status quo in race relations, to wage war in Vietnam, to bow to the "love it or leave it" attitude which permeated the culture at that time. I never burned a flag, but I might have without remorse. For more than twenty years I refused to stand or salute or sing the National Anthem at any public event. Is it time now to find a new way to honor the flag? A new way of thinking about nationalism? About patriotism? Are they the same? I used to think so. I'm not so certain any longer. While I am completely fed up with the Right's theft of the flag as a symbol of conservative values, I realize that my own discomfort and mixed feelings about the flag have allowed the conservatives to successfully claim the flag as their own. The flag's symbolic power is capable of stirring deep emotions. The current administration knows this. It's why we don't ever see any of the 1,700 war dead returning to US soil in flag-draped caskets. Even the conservatives realize that the power of the flag could be turned against them in a flash. All of this from the fleet fingers of a colonial woman in 1777. I believe Betsy Ross left behind a needle or two, hidden in the seams of that first flag, to prick our national sensibilities from time to time, to remind us it's a flawed symbol in many ways. Flawed and meaningful and belonging to no one ideological group. Happy Flag Day.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's a professor at one of the colleges where I work who studies
Americans' affiliation with symbols (i.e. the flag) vis-a-vis American identity. It turns out, that high symbolic affiliation doesn't correlate with an interest in how the country functions. It's about being part of a group.

As academics would say, I wish the flag carried multivalent signifiers and, as you said, could be coopted by the people not the Far Right.


6/15/2005 09:23:00 AM  

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