Every Fourth of July, I sit with my family on a Port Townsend bluff at Fort Worden. We gasp each time the rockets’ red glare lights the sky. Every year the splendor of the fireworks takes my breath away. Every year their blast and stink reminds me of war.
I guess I’m an ambivalent patriot.
When I was a kid my dad hung the Stars and Stripes every July from a flag mount by our garage. By the time I got a home of my own, I had inherited both his flag and his flag mount. And if I didn’t exactly share his “Semper Fi” brand of full-throated allegiance, I had learned enough of the world to know that I deeply valued the American experiment the flag represents.
Maybe I’m just an old American studies geek, but it genuinely moves me that the founders imagined, then pulled off, the first modern republic. That they had such a clear-eyed understanding of human nature, they installed checks against its excesses—even as they built a democracy to encourage its noblest impulses. That they enshrined such rights as freedom of speech—an enlightenment I didn’t fully appreciate until I was traveling in Istanbul and found myself briskly surrounded by military goons after casually criticizing Mustafa Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.
Fly an American flag from my home? Proudly.
I never did install that flag mount. My friend who did, in the solidarity that made patriots of us all after 9/11, kept her American flag waving for exactly one week. I had to take it down, she confided later. My neighbors were horrified. “Is it a pro-war statement?” they clamored to know. Her urban neighborhood, known for its racial and economic diversity, had evidently located the limits of its tolerance. Be whoever you want in this community. Just not too American.
For those whose political consciousness was forged by Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers, and Watergate, patriotism came to stand for a loyalty that may or may not have been deaf, but was apparently blind and therefore pretty dumb. For them, the American flag represented unchecked imperialism and thus claimed its greatest power when it was set on fire. The new American patriot argued long and loud that the right to burn the flag is the most basic of American freedoms—and for many of us that argument was persuasive. But it didn’t do much for a united reverence of Old Glory.
And so progressives ceded the flag to American Legion parades and military bases and, more recently, Tea Parties—widening the cultural divide and denying ourselves a potent symbol of shared devotion to America’s foundational ideals.
Me—I would like my flag back. I would like a means to wave wordless gratitude to the generations of soldiers who have given their lives protecting the freedoms and the safety I take for granted. I would like a visible badge of my belief in government by the people. I, who have done my share of protesting, would like a public way to display my reverence for this country’s embrace of dissent.
None of which makes me a military hawk, a democratic imperialist, or a political naif. I can applaud my country’s highest ideals while allowing that we don’t always live up to them. I would rather have that argument than hand my flag over to those who believe it represents America’s moral superiority and entitlement to world dominance.
As we prepare to watch the London Olympics, indeed, I am steeling myself for the frothy Americentric coverage from Bob Costas (who bears such a distressing resemblance to Stanley Tucci’s unctuous Caesar Flickerman in The Hunger Games it makes me wonder if that book series wasn’t conceived as a grisly metaphor for the Olympics and the American nationalist excesses it promotes. Just try not recalling Katniss in flames when you watch the Opening Ceremonies.)
I don’t want my Olympics hijacked by the American triumphalist narrative, and I don’t want my flag to be either. Of course you and I both know what that means: It means I need to man up and fly the damn thing. My friend who was peer pressured into taking hers down found a third way: She stitched a global flag of her own composition, depicting a planet full of countries united beneath a dove of peace. She flew it until it faded, its tattered fabric proclaiming that the definition of peace is the understanding that we’re all in this together.
Hanging my Stars and Stripes will be my way of proclaiming that, to me, that’s also a pretty good definition of America.