The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

A Flag Free Fourth

Some two thirds of Americans are flag-wavers. That is, they’ve flown the flag at home, in their office or from their cars, according to a recent article, which also says that there are fewer flag-wavers since 2003.

In 2007 some 62 percent of Americans said they flew the stars and stripes at home, in the office or in their car, according to the poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in Washington released last week ahead of the July 4 Independence Day celebrations.

But in August 2002, less than a year after the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, 75 percent of Americans said they flew the flag, according to the poll published last week.

…Patriotic sentiment has also receded somewhat since 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq. In 2003, 56 percent agreed with the statement “I am very patriotic” compared to 49 percent this year.

Among Republican voters, the sentiment has declined from 71 percent in 2002 to 61 percent in 2007. Among Democrat voters, 48 percent said they were “very patriotic” in 2003 and 45 percent in 2007.

It won’t surprise any readers of this blog that I’m not much of a flag-waver. I never have been, even though I grew up in a home where my dad hauled out the flag for all the appropriate holidays, and I spent years in the Boy Scouts (mostly against my will) where I learned (by practicing over and over again) how to properly raise, lower, and fold a flag.

That was about the time I was coming out, and as a result I always had a somewhat ambivalent relationship with the flag. Then during my senior year of high school, the Supreme Court upheld Georgia’s sodomy law, and I stopped standing for the pledge of allegiance. I couldn’t bring myself to choke out the words “liberty and justice for all,” at least not with out a sardonic chuckle or two.

Years later, after 9/11, I refused to display a flag from our house. I can’t count the number of events I went to at which some form of the flag was thrust into my hands, then leaving me with the job of deciding how best to dispose of it. I guess what bothered me about it is that I didn’t understand the point, or I didn’t get what people were saying with their flag display.

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“Contentless patriotism.” It’s the absolute perfect phrase to sum up why that song causes bile to rise in back of my throat. Actually, it describes what I feel like I saw in the days after 9/11. I remember a picture of one guy, photographed from the back, standing on a highway divider, dressed in a shirt printed with an American flag design, and waving a huge American flag to passing cars. I remember looking at that and thinking “why?” What exactly is he trying to say or do with this gesture? It pariotism really as simple as waving a flag and an inexplicable feeling in one’s gut, that could actually just be something you ate?

….I guess what I’m tryind to say is this. There are and will be a lot of people going on today about how “America is the greatest nation on Earth.” Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t. It’s certainly the wealthiest, and the most powerful. But, despite what some might think and what the culture communicates, wealth and power do not necessarily imply virtue. Yes, there are a lot of advantages to living in the wealthiest, most powerful nation in the world, even if you aren’t one of its wealthiest and most powerful citizens. Again, wealth and power do not imply virtue in those who happen to possess them. In fact, wealth and power can be, and often are, gained by doing far-from-virtuous things. In short a “great nation” may not always do great things on its way to greatness. But one has to stop and think about that, and think about what Americas policies and actions have meant for countless people around the world, who never benefited from that “greatness,” and were in fact sacrificed (though not willingly) for it.

From my point of view, patriotism stems (or should stem) from realizing America’s potential for greatness, and working to help it reach that potential, while also acknowledging the ways in which it has failed to do so, and fails to do so every day.

“Contentless patriotism” isn’t a phrase I coined, by the way. I picked it up from Michael Berube, in a post about a song most of us will have to hear at least once today, whether we want to or not.

And needless to say, I think the song is odious almost beyond measure. That’s not because I’m a paid-up member of the latté-drinking liberal cultural élite who sneers at my fellow citizens’ simple, heartfelt expressions of patriotism; it’s because the song’s version of patriotism is completely contentless. Two verses and three choruses, and Mr. Greenwood couldn’t find a single reason to love the U.S.A.? Yeah, yeah, I know, pride, pride, freedom, freedom: “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.” But free to do what? To fire employees without cause, thanks to the at-will employment doctrine? To abolish the estate tax? To hold up a sign saying that Matthew Shepherd got what he deserved? Or to protest foolish wars, march for civil rights, and support the right of kids with Down syndrome to be educated in regular classrooms where they can go to visit Fort Robideau with their nondisabled peers? “God Bless the U.S.A.” doesn’t say, and that’s what makes it such a perfect emblem of a certain kind of right-wing contentless patriotism, the kind of patriotism that supports the troops by flying military flags from cars while supporting a President who leads the troops off to needless slaughter and then cuts their veterans’ benefits. Had Greenwood said anything about that freedom– “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free of all taxes on my estate of $36 million,” or “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free to fight for the right to register Mississippi’s black voters in the face of murderous right-wing opposition”– one imagines that his song would be a good deal less popular.

This year, it’s a Howard Zinn column from 2006 that makes the case for a fourth free of contentless patriotism in the form of flag-waving.

National spirit can be benign in a country that is small and lacking both in military power and a hunger for expansion (Switzerland, Norway, Costa Rica and many more). But in a nation like ours — huge, possessing thousands of weapons of mass destruction — what might have been harmless pride becomes an arrogant nationalism dangerous to others and to ourselves.

Our citizenry has been brought up to see our nation as different from others, an exception in the world, uniquely moral, expanding into other lands in order to bring civilization, liberty, democracy.

That self-deception started early.

When the first English settlers moved into Indian land in Massachusetts Bay and were resisted, the violence escalated into war with the Pequot Indians. The killing of Indians was seen as approved by God, the taking of land as commanded by the Bible. The Puritans cited one of the Psalms, which says: “Ask of me, and I shall give thee, the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the Earth for thy possession.”

…How many times have we heard President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld tell the troops that if they die, if they return without arms or legs, or blinded, it is for “liberty,” for “democracy”?

One of the effects of nationalist thinking is a loss of a sense of proportion. The killing of 2,300 people at Pearl Harbor becomes the justification for killing 240,000 in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The killing of 3,000 people on Sept. 11 becomes the justification for killing tens of thousands of people in Afghanistan and Iraq.

And nationalism is given a special virulence when it is said to be blessed by Providence. Today we have a president, invading two countries in four years, who announced on the campaign trail last year that God speaks through him.



We need to refute the idea that our nation is different from, morally superior to, the other imperial powers of world history.

We need to assert our allegiance to the human race, and not to any one nation.

After 9/11, I tried to find a flag to fly that would say what I wanted to say — a simple flag withe a picture of the earth on it. Like this one.

earth flag

The reason was because if I flew the U.S. flag, I’d either have to attach an essay explaining what I meant by flying it, or I’d have to fly it like this.

distress flag

All things considered, that might be an appropriate gesture this 4th of July.

Update:

Bob Geiger at Huffington Post has more to add:

We declared our break from a monarch, an absolute ruler, in 1776 when the 13 colonies risked it all to repudiate that form of government and to say that the leader of what would become the new United States of America should listen to the will of the people and not the other way around.

One has to wonder what Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Hancock and the other Founding Fathers would think of where we’re at, 231 years later, if they could see the vision of Democracy they cherished so soiled and the 43rd president known not at all for his wisdom and entirely for his outrageous abuse of power.

George W. Bush has taken our country and made us despised throughout the world, ruined our global reputation in a way that may take a generation to salvage and made us far less safe in a dangerous world. Indeed, he has used our nation’s wealth and power to make the world a more dangerous place.

His administration has also found a way to diminish a great holiday like our Independence Day, to make us feel less like proudly waving our flag and to even cause many like me, who have worn our country’s uniform, to wonder what the hell it was for.

And, for that, every American who voted for Bush, should take time this July Fourth to perform a truly patriotic act and be profoundly ashamed.

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