September 7, 2017
When I was growing up, in a small town in California, we always had a flag on our front porch. So did everyone else on our street. My parents still do, but I do not. That's not because I believe any less in the ideals the flag stands for: democracy, equality, liberty. It's not because I hate America, either. It's because in my lifetime, the flag has been co-opted by people who do not espouse or embody its values.
A few weeks ago, I made a comment about this on social media, noting that these days when I see someone sporting a lot of American flags, I don't think, as I once did, "Oh, they must be a vet," or "That's nice that they're so proud to be American." Instead, I see it as a display of aggression, because it’s not so irrational to think that the person wrapped up in flags is a men's rights activist, an Islamophobe, a xenophobe, or an outright white supremacist. In fact it seems that the whole notion of patriotism has been appropriated by people who don’t actually uphold American values, who do not believe “all men are created equal,” who do not welcome the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” but instead hate and fear anyone unlike them and follow a president similarly fueled by hate, greed, and self-interest.
I wrote that I find this trend disturbing, that I find it odd that people who don't agree with these things, or want their country's flag to represent these values, have quietly ceded the right to define patriotism.
It was a few casual comments tossed off hastily, because … social media. It wasn't a particularly articulate argument I was making, but it wasn't wrong either. As hundreds of "triggered libtard snowflake" comments began flooding my feed, an equal number of head-nods came with them. People who said the dominant feeling the American flag now struck in them was not pride, but fear.
Among those who were furious with me, about 90 percent contained exactly the sort of vitriol masquerading as patriotism that I'd been pointing out in the first place. Several men suggested I might enjoy being gang-raped by ISIS, dominated in North Korea, or, for some reason, kidnapped by Somali terrorists. Their version of the old “if you don’t like it, you can leave” refrain seemed to oddly forget that there are plenty of countries in the world that do democracy better than the U.S. That the world does not actually consist only of America and hostile dictatorships the way it does in their minds. That there are plenty of Americans who don't feel particularly free or equal in their country. Canadian MRA guys said the flag was a way to find like-minded people when in the U.S., earning high-fives from their bros ... and further proving my point.
Some accused me of being disrespectful to soldiers who have paid dearly to provide me the freedom of criticizing the flag. I countered that I wasn't criticizing the flag, but rather people who use it to wrap racism up in patriotism, that free speech is a cornerstone of American democracy (and that they were sort of proving my point by noting that it’s a right so dear, our soldiers fight for it); then I added that my brother—a disabled vet—happens to agree with me, and several accused me of lying. Did I even have a brother? I do, a twin in fact! He was a Marine, and now he's a quadriplegic citizen who is deeply patriotic, Republican, conservative, Christian, and doesn't care for the flag he sacrificed so much for being used as a symbol of hatred.
Always ready to believe that I might be wrong, and truly wanting to be in this case, I conducted an informal survey of random people in my part of the world (one of the deep red bits of California, on the state line with Nevada), asking strangers simply: "What do you think of when you see the American flag?" Some said respect for the military and people in uniform in general, some said 4th of July and American independence, five (out of 50) said democracy. I made a point of polling an equal number of liberals and conservatives, and was surprised to find that the majority of people, including those who still associate the flag with ideals of freedom and democracy, said that when they see it today, especially on someone's clothing or vehicle, they mostly think of Trump rallies, white supremacy, and xenophobia.
Then I dug into reports of hate crimes over the past year and saw another troubling trend: Alongside the usual items associated with white supremacist hate crimes (the Confederate flag and various Nazi symbols), there was an increasing number of angry young men wrapped in American flags. Jeremy Christian, the perpetrator in the recent stabbing in Portland of three good Samaritans attempting to protect Muslim women from his assault, is the latest example. It's as if, in electing a president who enjoyed nothing more than whipping up rally crowds with misogyny and racism, we have normalized that rhetoric, wrapped it in an American flag literally and metaphorically.
There’s historical precedent in other countries for what I see happening now in America. When I mentioned the topic to my husband, who’s from Scotland, he nodded and said, “Yep, that’s what happened to the English flag.” He’s referring to the St. George flag, a white flag with a red cross that has been completely co-opted by English nationalists and white supremacists, so much so that it’s now making its way into the social media profiles of American Neo-Nazis.
The use of the American flag as the favorite symbol of white supremacist groups should alarm any true patriot. Irrespective of political party, I'd like to believe that Americans who want the flag associated with white supremacy are in the minority. It also represents an opportunity for Democrats, who have for some reason tended to shy away from overt displays of patriotism. It's time for liberals, lefties, Democrats, and hippies to get comfortable with the flag, to build with it a big tent under which all Americans—irrespective of race, creed, or political affiliation—are welcome. It's time for progressives to claim their own definition of America, to tie ideals of equality for all to a flag that was meant to represent those ideals all along.
I've started to see it here and there, with left-leaning pundits adding the American flag to their social media bios, but it needs to be louder and prouder. It's been heartening to see so many Democrats this year return to the idea of political and social activism, to see so many signing up to run for office, or doubling down on commitments to their towns and cities. But we are humans, and while actions speak louder than words, symbols and language still matter a great deal. It's time for Democrats to define "American" and "patriotism" as the inclusive terms they want them to be, to describe the country they want to see as they're working to build it, and to be patriotic about that America. The right has for decades appointed itself the arbiter of patriotism and decency, but why is the left continuing to let that stand, when the so-called patriots are turning a blind eye to Russian cyber-terrorism and Republican politicians are conveniently forgetting their Bible studies when it comes to caring for the poor and the sick? In its fight for freedom, equality, and justice, it’s the left that’s more tied to American values these day. I say it’s time to stand up and claim that flag.
This past Memorial Day, I hung out with my brother, and remembered relatives and strangers who died protecting this country. And I stocked up on American flags while they were out in every store, too. Because I refuse to let the symbol of my homeland be something that strikes fear into any of its citizens.