Recently on a sunny spring Tuesday in Seattle, I was having a socially distant chat with my next-door neighbor Mark. I asked about the health of his sugar snap pea plantings, while he parried with inquiries around how my kids are handling online school. I won the neighbor lottery, so this over-the-fence type chat is a common occurrence for us. Living out in the sticks, we each have a bit of land, so I didn’t immediately notice that in the distance over Mark’s plaid jacketed shoulder and high up over his grazing horse’s head, an American flag properly stationed up a proper flagpole danced in the crisp breeze. “You put a flag up,” I observed. “How long has it been there? Or has it always been there?”
Now, I’ve learned over the course of my nearly half century turn at bat that I’m not the most observant fork in the drawer, but something here seemed amiss. This seemed like a big oversight, even for me. And what’s the big deal anyway? Why wouldn’t a plaid-wearing gray bearded horseman in the sticks have an American flag? He is exactly who one might think of when imagining who has flags. But the thing is, my beloved neighbor, contrary to his optics of plaid and beard claddedness and equine orientation, is a Progressive.
Progressive. What does that even mean? Is that the same thing as a liberal? I tend to stay away from the word ‘liberal’ because 1)it means different things to everyone and 2)it implies allegiance to the left side of the political spectrum. But Progressive, I think, is a word, a belief system, that can move freely between the right and the left like a chlorine filter happily bobbing about unmolested in a pool. There can be Democrat Progressives and Republican Progressives — people who believe in marriage equality and body autonomy, for example, but whose opinions on tax structure might differ. The word Progressive might actually be the unifying political messiah we’ve all been waiting for — a linguistic ambassador that’s potentially welcome at both tables. The Tom Hanks of political nomenclature.
“Just last week,” Mark said. “Hmm?” I replied, dragging my focus out of my semantic musings and back to my neighbor. “I put it up, just last week. I figured, it’s my flag too.”
It’s my flag too. In those four words, I knew that my optically confusing neighbor had expressed exactly what I was struggling to reconcile. He had mixed feelings about our flag.
And so do I.
It’s awkward to admit that. On one hand, I really like our flag. Seeing it in other countries over a US embassy brings a sense of home and safety. When I had the opportunity to attend the Olympic Games in Vancouver Canada in 2010, I strolled through the mobbed streets holding my US flag proudly, as I fended off good natured (and some bad natured) ribbing for it. I love being at a football game or a roller derby bout or a monster truck rally and hearing the national anthem cut through the crowd’s anticipatory rumblings and watch everyone become somber for a moment, participating in agreed silence as the flag is raised, the words of our anthem invoking images of bombs bursting in air and the tattered flag stubbornly being “still there”. I feel grateful and humbled by those who have given their lives for my freedom to enjoy roller derby and garlic fries while enthusiastic folks behind me slosh their Coors Light down my back because they are excitedly cheering on Allie Qaida as she lands a hard hit on a jammer. Good stuff.
Until it isn’t.
Until someone says you HAVE to stand. Or you HAVE to put your hand over your heart. Or they are terrorizing and threatening someone who is exercising their American right to kneel before the flag in protest. Until the flag becomes a weapon to control, frighten, and contain.
Like many forks in drawers, I don’t like being told what to do — an attribute that ironically was partially born from our flag and everything it is supposed to stand for. Specifically, freedom from tyranny. Freedom to sit my ass in the chair while the flag is being raised because my back hurts and not needing to explain that to anyone. Freedom to kneel if the flag doesn’t think I’m a full citizen who deserves marriage equality or equal treatment from police officers or the right to serve my country.
Somehow, as a Progressive, I’ve felt the flag has been taken from me. As American kids, we are all taught to behave a certain way around the flag and feel certain things about it, and by mere repetition and conditioning, a lot of it sticks. I never really questioned it. You’re an American citizen? Here’s your flag. Love it and treat it with the kind of respect you treat people with. Okay, no, bad example. Treat it better than people. Fold it just so. Don’t let it touch the ground. Whisper. Revere. Pledge allegiance to it. It’s practically an act of treason to reexamine our relationship to the flag, to dare wonder about its symbolism, the mere musing a betrayal of contract and pageantry firmly established in kindergartens around the country. And the right to burn one of these cloths is hanging by the sheerest of its own threads to the First Amendment, in constant threat of being revoked.
Is this sounding American yet? It sounds more like idol worship — holding more sacred an object than the people who died under it. To put an even finer point on it, we’re talking about an object that people proudly wear as ‘wife beaters’ and jock straps. That’s okay, but no kneeling in front of it is allowed? Much like American Football, the rules are so convoluted the refs have to conference about them throughout the game.
I think I want the flag back. But why do I still feel like to fly it, I’d need a disclaimer to go along with it? Something like the Pride flag, the addition of which says “I like my country but not everything about my country and it’s complicated!” So many marginalized groups now see the flag as a symbol of oppression, because it is usually wielded with the most aggression by those who oppress. They use the flag like a flashbang — a tool to quell and suppress all conversation. How can I fly that flag without feeling like I’m sending a hostile message to those who have been oppressed by it?
The United States was founded by a group of troublemakers that were sick of Britain’s shit and being told what to do. How do you think they would feel about our mandatory worship of the flag that they made?
Maybe that’s the key — to think of the original flag as the symbol of troublemakers and adventurers and rebels — not of rule followers. I can look at the flag and feel rage, like our founders did. I can look at our flag and feel indignance, like our founders did.
But there’s a problem. Our founders were not in general a group of folks I’d care to emulate. They were slave owners and murderers of the indigenous cultures who were here first, and our flag waved over the broken backs of the enslaved and the dead. Our flag continues to cast its shadow over our land that is buckling at the knees from metastatic racism and violence and the nauseating denial of it.
I want no part of that. And it’s far easier for me, someone who has not been systematically oppressed by this country and who is white enough to blend in, to be willing to do the mental gymnastics necessary to reclaim the flag.
In the flag’s defense, she didn’t only preside over our shame. The Emancipation Proclamation happened under her watch.
Women getting the right to vote.
The liberation of Auschwitz.
The Civil Rights Act.
McDonalds temporarily bringing back Szechuan Sauce.
Maybe the flag changes with us. Perhaps she watches us as we evolve and stumble and lurch forward and fall down and get back up, and waves at us as if to say, this way. Keep going. If I think of the flag not as symbolizing what once was but as a beacon for what can be, I’m much more inclined to want to fly it.
Our Constitution did not have a very illustrious start either. African Americans were 3/5ths of a person, women were property, for starters. But we made amendments as we slowly (so slowly…) are figuring out how to not be complete assholes.
Our flag cannot be amended, but maybe it doesn’t have to be. Why should I let other people tell me what the flag means? To them, perhaps it speaks to a time past that they thought was great. To me, it can speak to a time of greatness not yet arrived, yet it beckons with relentless optimism, indicating with the wind how to get to the land of the truly free and the home of the brave.
The red, white and blue are not a blueprint telling me what to think but a palette — a tool with which to paint and characterize my country. Even when it’s ugly.
It’s my flag too.