I’ve always been interested in different perspectives and interpretations of the American flag — what people think the colors represent, the place it holds in their hearts, how the country’s history influences their view, etc. Views are obviously wide ranging, with everything from a “treat it like you treat the Bible” policy to the “it’s just another piece of cloth” attitude. (I rarely meet people with the latter opinion, but every once in a while someone surprises me.)
Flag Day is this weekend. (Weekend-ish. It was Thursday, June 14.) 2018 is an interesting year for Flag Day, and the American flag in general, I think. The whole country has been talking, pontificating, and indeed ranting about what does and does not disrespect the flag. Is standing during the National Anthem show more respect to Old Glory? Is kneeling during the anthem disrespectful? Does the flag only represent freedom and liberty, or does it also represent empiricism and oppression? Should the pledge still be said in school? Should we pledge allegiance to a flag at all?
Difficult questions like those can be brushed away, as many Americans so often do. I can’t blame those who do either. The American flag is a historic symbol, weathered, resolute, and firm. For many it’s the banner of victory, justice, hope, and the longevity of the American dream. The same flag that rose up over Pearl Harbor after the attack was the same that rose over Ground Zero in 2001. The same flag that was handed to a grieving mother after losing a son in battle in WWII is the same that was handed to a mother after losing a son in Afghanistan and Iraq. The flag doesn’t just represent the United States, it represents those who died protecting them, their rights, and their sovereignty.
And still, the flag is a symbol of burden, even for some of its citizens. I can’t blame these people either. The same flag that represents freedom to many is the same flag that waved during the days of Jim Crowe. The same flag that flew during just victories over Nazism was the same flag that flew during a failed war in Vietnam. The same flag that some citizens want to reconcile as a symbol of good and hope in the world, is the same flag that other citizens tarnish by waving and coloring it in with symbols of hate and division.
I’ve come to believe that the sacredness of a thing comes often by the mystery and the messiness of it. I’m not one who would say the flag is ‘sacred’ necessarily, but it has a respect and awe owed to it. The stars and stripes have seen countless wars and battles, marches and riots, presidents and dictators, citizens and foreigners and ultimately it has belonged in some sense to all of those people and events. The flag has been pointed to with integrity and truth, and it’s been pointed to with manipulation and deceit. It’s in that respect that the flag should be flown, honored, and regarded in its wholeness.
Old Glory does not belong to this or that ideology, one political party, one brand of patriot, or a single kind of citizen. No, the American flag must be a symbol for all, or its unity is a lie. We should strive to see in it what our neighbor sees in it, even, and especially, when they disagree with us. The diehard patriot should seek the tarnished image of freedom, one that was brandished for the wrong reasons. The American dream skeptic should try to see the beauty and pride in the flag that still stands out boldly and uniquely from every other nation’s banner. And all American citizens should think of the flag by how the actions of a nation will influence that image for generations to come.
This week, for the first time, an American president met, shook hands, and shared peace talks with a North Korean leader. No one, in all their capacities, knowledge, foresight, or wisdom can presently tell the impact of that meeting. Only time will show how that meeting between President Trump and Kim will influence the world, but in the background were the American and North Korean flags side by side, mingled and awkward like milk in mud. While the leader of the free world and the leader of arguably the most sinister and totalitarian dictatorship in the world met under the frantic gaze of citizens everywhere, the red, white, and blue hung in the background- still, silent, and brilliant. That moment is now part of the story of the American flag, for better or for worse, like every other chapter in its story.