“I am not flying the flag this year” he said, scrunching up his face as from a bad smell. “We just can’t…” she finished, or something like it. It surprised me. A dozen years my senior, they are people who have long flown the flag without hesitation.
We didn’t finish the conversation — it was as if they assumed I understood what they meant. Though my take might be significantly different from what they intended, they are not the first to express such discomfort toward flying the American flag these days.
Like many Boomers, I grew up in a time when my peers were burning the American flag. It was routine, even. There was vociferous feelings both ways about defacing the flag and it even became a crime in some states until the Supreme Court said it was protected free speech (1989). In 2016 Trump reignited the idea that it should be a crime, pandering as he does to any group sentiment that can be exploited.
But the people I know who aren’t feeling like flying the flag would previously have had no problem doing so. In fact, it was a civic ritual they gladly engaged in. Something has happened to change that. An analogy may help.
If you are Christian you may have similar feelings at Easter when an all-encompassing consumeristic culture co-opts the Empty Tomb and substitutes the Easter Bunny for it. Instead of palm fronds, candlelight, and “Alleluia!” you are surrounded by little yellow marshmallow birds, chocolate eggs, and a meaningless nothing at the center of the celebration. Likewise at Christmas, when the story you know is about a refugee family forced by a violent and oppressive empire to leave their home at a critical moment, and so give birth to their child in hay in the dark of night. Instead of that story, you witness a consumption-driven avalanche beginning with Black Friday and ending with Day-after sales. All of it, and with no real explanation, has a fat, bearded superhero and reindeer at the center of it all.
Well, that kind of adulteration has happened to the American flag. Instead of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and Bill of Rights as the clear substance of its symbolic meaning, the American flag has been singed, re-colored, and appropriated by something else. It is being co-opted by right-wing extremism, and a former president who spawned a corrosive national conspiracy theory, and arguably fomented an attempted insurrection.
The blue and white, or black and blue stripped American flags so prominently displayed in yards or on barns and garages, has the effect of stealing the light from the founder’s Constitutional genius inherent in Betsy Ross’s flag, and making it dark and threatening for many. Unfurled as they so often are alongside Trump flags, and even obscenity-laced signs hurling hostility at the current president, they take a symbol of national unity — and honor for those who died in service to the nation — and reduce it to theirs alone.
So not wanting to be associated with a politics of hostility that is often tinged with racist and xenophobic ideas, some feel the need to eschew the flag they would have previously flown. While I do not fly it or any flag myself, when he said they couldn’t do it this year, I felt sad for the loss it implied.