Reclaiming the Flag

Symbols, Substance and Patriotism in a Divisive Age

On our family ranch, tucked in the rolling hills just northeast of San Jose, California, we celebrated four holidays in my 1970s boyhood.   Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and the Fourth of July were all of equal importance, each marked by large gatherings of cousins, each distinguished by its own color scheme.   Thanksgiving was brown, gold, and rust; Christmas red and green; Easter pink and yellow; the Fourth red, white, and blue.

The thing about WASPs of our sort is that our patriotism was the same as our Christianity: decorative rather than heartfelt.  We did not go to church to celebrate either the birth or resurrection of Jesus; Christmas belonged to Santa, and Easter to Peter Cottontail.  When we gathered in the barn for Thanksgiving turkey and dressing, a senior cousin would rise and give a toast, expressing gratitude to the chefs and to the ancestors who had given us these hills.  The Almighty was never invoked, even by the few cousins who did go to church and weren’t gently agnostic in the general family way.

The Fourth?  We hung flags and bunting from houses and trees.  Children wore plastic Uncle Sam top hats; ranch dogs scratched in vain frustration at red, white and blue bowties tied on to their collars.  As far as we were concerned, the flag was no more a political statement than the Easter Bunny was a theological one: it was simply the prescribed color for a particular kind of celebration. 

As any WASP can tell you, you do not need to believe in a thing to love paying tribute to it.

When I was about 14, cousin William came from Boulder for the Fourth.  William was a college professor, a lifelong activist of the left.  There was nothing wrong with his politics, as far as the family was concerned.  We had Communists and John Birch Society members alike in our ranks.  The shared understanding was that personal convictions, no matter how intense, were no reason to spoil anyone’s dinner or to upset grandmothers.  William tried to abide by the rules, but he carried with him a certain exasperation at the way we festooned the place with symbols that had, for him, a more complicated and sinister meaning.   During a game of croquet on the ranch lawn, William remarked under his breath, “Did you know, Hugo, all over the world people are terrified of the men who carry that flag?”

The next day, I told my grandmother what William had said.  She gave a tight smile.  “Your cousin has strong views.  Don’t let them upset you.  If he says that again, just let him get it all out to you.  He’ll feel better once he’s said his peace.”   My aunt, who had been lovingly quarreling with her cousin William since they were small children, laughed.  “Better he say it to you, Hugo, than to the rest of us.” 

It wasn’t that my family thought William was entirely wrong.  It was that he had made the mistake of allowing himself to take the symbol too seriously.   Just because the Easter Bunny wasn’t real, it didn’t mean we didn’t hold egg hunts for the children on the lawn.  Just because none of us believed in Jesus, it didn’t mean many among us didn’t tear up at family singalongs of “Silent Night” every Christmas Eve.  And just because US foreign policy in the early Reagan Administration was an affront to the sensibilities of many in the clan, that was no reason not to wrap ourselves in Old Glory every Fourth of July.

Decorations, traditions, and excuses for parties were above criticism, and if someone could not contain their objections, that person was to be tolerated, affirmed, redirected with humor, and plied with sugar and alcohol.

Forty years later, much has changed.  We still decorate the ranch for the seasons.  William and most of his generation have joined the great cloud of witnesses.  And the flag has grown more complicated.

A year ago, Damon Young wrote an essay for Time, How I Came to View the American Flag as a ThreatAfter a summer bicycle trip with his friends (all Black) from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Maryland, Young – a columnist for the indispensable Very Smart Brothas site – noted: “The election of Donald Trump calcified my ambivalence into an ambiguous wariness stemming from an unambiguous truth. The sort of (white) people who clamber to distinguish themselves as the True Americans have weaponized the flag, manipulating it to antagonize those they believe to be less American.”   He and his friends saw few flags in big cities, but they were ubiquitous in the small towns he rode through.  “They were intended to intimidate,” Young concluded.

I wondered how Damon would feel at our ranch on a Fourth.  Would our smiles and warmth and burgers, and (ancient ranch summer specialty) homemade banana ice cream be enough to put him at ease on a flag-festooned hillside filled with white people?

I like the camo-flag hat you see at the top of this post.  Victoria gave it to me years ago, and I wear it often.  Camo, to me, signifies nothing more than an intense emotional identification with rural places.  I am at home in the city, I want it to say, but I dream of forests and trails and dirt. The flag is an affectionate nod to the nation that I call home.  It’s no more an endorsement of a particular politics than a crucifix around a neck is an endorsement of the Spanish Inquisition.

That’s what I intend, but intentions are not always enough.  Reception matters too.  WASP manners mean that I must not give offense, and must consider the way that the symbols I wear might upset or anger or scare.   I have a Dukes of Hazzard cap too; it says, “General Lee” on the side, a tribute to the car the Duke boys drove. (It was my favorite TV show around the same time that cousin William came to that Fourth).  I don’t wear it where it might be misconstrued, and in 2020, that’s almost certain to be just about everywhere.  I wear it when I’m writing, or when I’m at the ranch and no one but the blood is about.  Some symbols, like “General Lee,” are probably unredeemable at this point.  It would be unkind and unhelpful to insist that someone do the work to assess that I am not a bigot or a threat when I have that name on my hat.

The American flag is different.  I hear what Damon Young said, just as I heard what my cousin whispered on the croquet lawn, but I’m not ready to surrender the stars and stripes to the right-wing just yet.  The American flag is about the fullness of our history, its failures and its triumphs.  To wave it or to wear it is not a refusal to hear criticisms of it.   After all, I wear a Dodgers hat even though they betray me every autumn, even though I know that they built their stadium by evicting poor Latino families in Chavez Ravine, even though I think baseball is generally boring.  I wear it to show pride in a city and a people, and in solidarity with those who hope for a triumph.  I wear it even as I am happy to hear all the things that are disappointing about the boys in blue.

Perhaps the same can be true of the flag.

To wave it is not to say, you are not welcome here if you are insufficiently American, whatever that means.  To wear it on a hat is not to say, “I will fight you if you criticize it.”  To wear and to wave it is to say, we still hope that we will become what we said we would be.

In the summer and fall of this most trying and frightening year, the American flag has been at least partly redeemed by the ubiquity of the Trump flags.  At right-wing rallies across the country this year, flags with the president’s name have proved more ubiquitous than Old Glory itself.  By choosing another banner in which to wrap themselves, the right-wing has allowed the left and the center to reclaim the red, white, and blue as a symbol of anti-Trump patriotism.   As a friend who lives just outside Grand Rapids, Michigan told me, “The Trump voters all fly his flag now.  If I see just an American flag on a house, I figure it’s a Biden supporter.”

Whoever wins the election in just over two weeks, the culture wars will not cease.  One imagines that if he loses, the Trump banner will become like the Confederate Battle Flag – a symbol of a lost cause that might yet still triumph.  It will be distasteful, and rightly so.  I hope that the most troglodytic elements of our society do continue to wrap themselves in 45’s flag, as that will allow still more of us to embrace the red, white and blue as a symbol of the restoration of normalcy, pluralism, and inclusive, hopeful patriotism.

I am still a great believer in symbols that are devoid of any meaning other than tradition.  I sing “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” to the bunnies though I do not believe there ever was such a baby in Bethlehem to go and adore. I still light menorahs though I think the Maccabees were on the wrong side.  And yup, I still don’t think very much about it when I insist that the children put on red, white, and blue color schemes every Independence Day.   At the same time, in this most contentious and impatient age, I know we need images that DO have meaning.   Whatever the flag meant to me as a boy, it now must be the chief symbol of a shared civic religion, of the rule of law, of a commitment not only to the past but to a better future.  

The flag is as much about who we must become as it is about what we have failed to do.   Those of us who believe there is still good work to be done in this country can, and must, reclaim it.