I grew up a little differently than most Americans. I remember watching the Marines fold the consulate flag when dark fell. The flag was huge, though I think the embassy flags are larger, and it took a lot of them to handle it properly. The flag barely fit in our double-wide driveway. I learned the rules for respecting the flag like how it must never touch the ground (hence the need for so many Marines) while at the same time, displaying a flag became common in the States.
I didn’t even notice the verbal tick until editing, but for me, this is significant.
“The flag” is a symbol for the freedom and welcome the United States is supposed to stand for. It hangs over our embassies and consulates to tell Americans where help can be found, but as much to show those wanting to visit or move to our country where they can apply. It’s a sign that asylum can be found here, if necessary, and one that is huge so it can be seen from a great distance.
“A flag” is something painted to resemble the flag that is hung off balconies, on cars, and in yards to express solidarity with the principles and beliefs of a country founded on immigrants abandoning their homelands because of persecution, poverty, political or religious differences, or the hope for a better life in a new world … Or at least that’s what it’s supposed to mean. It seems not everyone understands the meaning behind that symbol or what it represents. The flag had meaning in my childhood that seems buried here in the United States under daily life until the flag has become something on its own when it’s supposed to represent something.
A simple example is the United States flag at the front of the community I live in. Not only is it “declaring” patriotism for every resident whether or not they are United States citizens or particularly patriotic, but it is always flown. Sure, there are lights on it at night…when they don’t burn out…but we live in an area with weather, high winds and rains, that affects this flag as well.
This is a problem on both fronts. Freedom, democracy, and the principles our country was founded on should not be imposed. This is, in fact, a large part of why the United States came to be.
The second, simpler and related to the first, is by attempting to say something with flying a flag, it ends up saying the reverse through disrespecting that flag. I never felt uncomfortable under the United States flag at the consulate even when, in the Iranian Revolution, it risked our very lives. Sure, I was a child with some odd notions, but I was not embarrassed by the flag.
Driving under the complex flag makes me uncomfortable or angry depending on its condition. At the same time, I “know” protesting it would be misunderstood much as some may misunderstand this post, and so it would cause trouble for me and my family. That’s not what United States patriotism should be about. Retaliation for differing opinions is against everything the United States stands for, and yet here we are.
I admit, having spent the beginning of my life in the diplomatic community, I grew up with an idealized image of my home country. This made transitioning here quite difficult both internally and because my differences meant fellow students bullied me while the school administration did nothing good to stop it (I’m happy to see this improving, though there’s a long way to go). However, or maybe because of what I learned when returned to these shores, I am not one to gloss over and sugarcoat United States history.
When the Russians invaded Afghanistan back in the 80s, the talk was all anti-commies and how we would never do something like that. It put me in the wrong no matter what I said. I had lived in Afghanistan. My family had friends there when the tanks rolled in, and friends who fled to the United States. Of course I didn’t support the invasion. At the same time, I couldn’t believe how people (I was in high school at the time) could lie to themselves about what had been done in the name of the United States. Our history as a nation is full of atrocities as horrifying as those in Russia. Talk of Siberia, then tell me why the Trail of Tears is any different? Talk about the Balkans, but what about Nicaragua? And what about the massive incarceration of Japanese Americans for being genetically similar to the people we were currently at war with? The list goes on, and we need to remember it, know it, so we can be smarter, better, and wiser in our future actions.
Patriotism was never about being blind for me.
It was, and is, about striving to be our better selves. To live up to the ideals our country was founded on while being very conscious of how and when those ideals were besmirched by human greed and pride. When the founding fathers said let all men be equal, they didn’t have the foresight to say men, women, and children regardless of skin, orientation, capabilities, genetics, etc. They didn’t see how “all” might have been a better choice. They saw through the vision of their time and meant equality without exclusion. They are not here to be asked, but I know what I think they’d have said if told future generations would parse out the word “men” and give it gender, color, genetics, etc. when in their grammar it was all inclusive.
This is their better selves. No, they did not live up to it, but I’d like to think they strived to. I just reread the Declaration of Independence as part of writing this article (because I didn’t want to misstate) and I’d suggest we all do the same. Hear the reasons we rebelled against British rule and consider them closely.
We are imperfect beings. We cannot achieve what we’ve set out to do because weakness gets in the way whether it’s letting our own failings block us or not shouting loud enough to be heard when someone else’s weakness attempts to silence our voices. We are unlikely to achieve a balanced utopia, but in striving toward one, we can better the lives of everyone.
Today, on the 4th of July when we celebrate those who set out to make a new nation not mired in the past but capable of learning from it and growing stronger in our welcome, I’d like to think we are striving for the ideals carved on the base of the Statue of Liberty (at the bottom of this link). If we are not, maybe it’s time to take a step back and ask ourselves why we are not. Find where we skipped from the path of making the country better, stronger, and more welcoming with each generation. Maybe it’s time to reclaim our present and our future. It’s time to make America something those founding fathers would look upon in awe, stunned at how much further we’ve come rather than having them turn away, disappointed their vision did not inspire a lasting drive to improve ourselves as people, as friends, and as neighbors when now it is so easy to reach out and welcome neighbors from anywhere on the planet.
People have fought and died on those principles (whether or not they were put in that position by those driven by other motivations). Let’s not worship the symbol and forget the meaning behind it. It’s time to raise the flag up off the ground and remember patriotism means to be proud of what your country is contributing not just to the well being of its people, but to the world.
I intended this as an introspective piece about my relationship with patriotism, but it changed along the way. I stand by my presentation. This is what patriotism means to me, and I weep to see what it has become when I know so many good people are being tricked or squashed by others’ failings. We must accept the past, whether hundreds of years ago or last week, and move forward into a better future. One person standing up can get knocked down easily. A million or more can change the tides of history and restore what the flag stands for. We need only try to be our better selves, and strive for the freedom and equality intended by the Declaration of Independence.