Grasping for the Flag

Patriotism does not imply a slavish and uncritical acquiescence to everything one’s country does. Love of country, like love of another, means expecting and wanting the best from the object of love. Criticism from the “loyal opposition” is an outgrowth of the love of, not the hate of country. The 1960s provide examples of important and thoughtful criticism born of love of country and condemnation borne of contempt. Strong feelings polarized Americans and blurred the meaning of American symbols like the flag.

One of the reasons Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was so persuasive a voice for white and black Americans was because he placed American shortcomings in the context of aspirations of what America could and should be. Rather than berating America for its sins, he awakened consciences. King did not condemn America as evil as much illuminate the inconsistency with America’s premises and the treatment of black Americans. In his famous, “I Have a Dream” speech delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King explained:

“When the architects of our great republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.”

Black Americans were just asking the rest of America to live up to its promises. King’s Dream was that “…one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.” King’s criticism of US civil rights policies was an ultimate act of the love of country, a love that was often unrequited.

The anti-war movement was somewhat different. If possible, the Vietnam War was more polarizing than the Civil Rights Movement. Though opposition to the war in Vietnam came from all political quarters, there was a strong anti-American undercurrent in the anti-war movement. For some, Vietnam may have been a mistake where the US faltered. For others, the US was an inherently evil and immoral country and the Vietnam War was just the most conspicuous evidence of this wickedness.

Peggy Noonan, the former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan and a Democrat by birth, recounts an incident illustrating this attitude. Noonan was on a bus trip to an anti-war demonstration in 1971. Soon Noonan realized that she was not with a group that shared her love of country. She observed from others on the bus not patriotism, but loathing and contempt for America. The US was to these people not a good and great country trying to extricate itself from a ground war in Asia, but a “racist, genocidal nation with an imperialistic lust for land…”

The passions of the time were so strong that the nation’s symbols started to blur. Some on the far Left began to burn the American flag as a sign of their displeasure. Those in favor of the war waved the flag that much harder in response. Soon, it was impossible to display the flag without the implication that one supported the War in Vietnam and disrespect for the flag became a conventional way to show anti-war sentiment. In one famous photograph from the time that illustrates misuse of the flag, a person assaulted an anti-war protestor using a flag as a weapon. This so of symbol misuse exacerbated the polarization of the war. To be anti-war carried the implication of being anti-American.

After the attack of September 11, the flag again became a symbol of American unity and support for the victims. Flags were plastered on bumper stickers, festooned over windows, pinned to lapels, and proudly flown over homes. US Flags sprouted across the land like wheat on the plains of Kansas. While some might expect flag-waving sentimentality by primitives in the mid-west, flags spontaneously appeared even in sophisticated and progressive cities like New York and Los Angeles. Goodness, the next thing you know, people might even offer up prayers.

Americans under 40 could rush to the flag at a time of stress unburdened by the self-consciousness of the baby-boomers. Not everyone is so fortunate. Trapped by the attitudes of their politically formative years some pundits and the legions of university thought police whined that waving the flag might somehow suppress different viewpoints. One can only imagine the chagrin of those on the Left when chants of “USA! USA!” greeted George Bush at Ground Zero in New York City.

Those fearful that the flag might become a club to enforce lock-step conformity ought not complain when others wave the flag. Rather, they should wave the flag in the midst of whatever critique they have. To do otherwise is to allow patriotism to be appropriated by only one side. This is unhealthy for political dialogue. Maintaining the tradition of the loyal opposition requires that opposition to grasp even more strongly at national symbols.

Of course, this suggestion is moot for those who really do hate America.

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