I Pledge Allegiance…

Reflections on flag-worship.

Way back in 2006, a few years after the 9/11 attacks, I was teaching at the Haverford School for Boys. Our a cappella choir, the Notables, was hosting a companion choir from a school in Denmark, and each choir member hosted a Danish boy. One morning, one of my students, Neal, told me this story:

He and his Danish guest were driving to school when the Danish boy asked Neal if the day was some sort of holiday. Neal replied that it wasn’t. The Danish boy asked, “So why are there so many American flags all over the place?”

The American flag has always been a revered symbol, certainly in my lifetime. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the issue of flag-burning was all the rage, with efforts by presidents and representatives to make flag-burning unconstitutional and a criminal offense. The issue went all the way to the Supreme Court in 1989’s Texas v. Johnson.

Never mind that most Americans never saw, have never seen, and will never see an American flag burned. I mean in person. Not just a video rerun, which can be broadcast and rebroadcast over and over and over again, leaving the impression that American flags get burned all the time, which is simply not true.

I can certainly understand the iconic and inspirational value of raising the Stars & Stripes at the top of Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima in February 1945. That image, particular to the US Marine Corps but sculpted in larger-than-life-size bronze, graces Arlington National Cemetery.

But since 9/11, the fetishization of our flag has become epidemic, ridiculous, even comedic. In the wake of 9/11, for instance, the state of Pennsylvania enacted a law requiring that the American flag be displayed in every classroom of every public, private, and parochial school in the state. Other states have similar laws, including Arizona, Iowa, Michigan, Mississippi, and Oregon.

My own reaction, after scratching my head for a good part of the day I discovered this new addition to my classroom, was to take it out of its little holder above my blackboard, roll it up, and stick it in my corner closet. No one—student, teacher, or administrator—ever complained.  No one ever seemed to notice it was missing. It stayed there in my closet for the next four years until the whole issue quietly went away.  But I digress.

Meanwhile, I’ll bet dollars to donuts that you can’t find a politician wearing a suit who isn’t sporting an American flag lapel pin. Or a car dealership that isn’t flying an American flag so large it takes gale force winds to make it fly, which is especially delicious when the cars on sale are Japanese, Korean, and German.

It has become pro forma now that every National Football League game begin with a couple of hundred people dragging out an American flag big enough to cover the entire playing field, frantically waving their arms to make the flag appear to be rippling in the breeze. The flag ripplers are as often as not active duty military personnel, veterans, police officers, firefighters, or emergency medical technicians.

The players themselves now have little American flags affixed to the back of their helmets so that, in the course of watching a game, one is reminded hundreds and hundreds of times that football is an American sport and we live in the United States of America. The same is true of many if not all college football teams, and high school teams as well.

Every NASCAR race begins with a Color Guard and presentation of the Colors. A similar ritual precedes every National Hockey League game.  During the major league baseball playoffs, the Philadelphia Phillies’ Alec Bohm was wearing an American flag headband, on which he was clearly sweating profusely.

When one of my nieces was a high school senior, the school posed her in front of an American flag backdrop for her graduation photo. And this was a Quaker school. The cheeseburger I ordered recently at a restaurant came with a little American flag stuck in it and “W.D.” written on it in black ink. It thought it was in honor of me since my initials are W. D. for William Daniel, but it turned out to mean “Well Done.”

Nazi Germany made a fetish out of its Swastika flag. Watch any Nazi propaganda film—I suggest Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will—it will send chills down your spine. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—Kim Jong Un’s North Korea—likes to “show the flag.”  So did the Ku Klux Klan when it marched in the streets of Washington, DC, back in the 1920s—and I mean the Stars-n-Stripes, not the Confederate battle flag.

I don’t know of any other country in the world that makes such a big deal out of their national flag, that demands you see it a dozen or forty or seventy or a hundred times a day lest you forget what country you live in.

All of which is especially ironic because today’s United States of America is about as disunited as it has been since the decades leading up to our Civil War. Many of the insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol on January 6th, 2021, were carrying American flags, some of them emblazoned with images of the 45th president, or AR-15s, or both. The Proud Boys regularly wear or carry American flags. You can find photos of Proud Boys wearing American flag bandanas to hide their faces.

In an essay called “Flag-Burning” that appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on October 25th, 1989, I argued that respect for the flag, and for the principles and the Republic for which it stands, can only be earned, not legislated by Congress or coerced through the threat of prison. I listed some of the serious problems facing our nation—homelessness, widespread illegal drug use, failing schools—and wrote that when the substance of freedom is subverted by a hypocritical genuflection to the symbols of freedom, we’re all in a whole lot of trouble.

A quarter of a century later, we are arguably worse off as a people than we were in 1989. We find ourselves living in a country where mass murder has become routine; legislators send Christmas cards to their constituents with all their family members armed to the teeth and smiling happily; vaccinations are perceived as a Deep State plot; facts are treated as “fake news”; Moms for Liberty are convinced that teachers are trying to make their kids gay; white men are an oppressed minority; immigrants are unwelcome; maldistribution of wealth is worse than it was in Medieval Europe; the front-running Republican candidate for the presidency of the nation our flag represents is a twice impeached, 91 times indicted, narcissistic grifter; the Democratic front-runner is already the oldest sitting president in US history with the next election still a year away; and elections are always stolen unless the guy we voted for wins.

And over it all, above it all, in the midst of it all, everywhere you look: the Red White & Blue of the Stars & Stripes. What so proudly we hail.

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