Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Two American Flags

This Fourth of July, for the first time, my house sported the Stars and Stripes.

It's not as though I just started being a patriot. I've always felt fortunate to live in a country founded on the principles enunciated in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, a country that claims to stand for equality, liberty and justice and that, at its best, actually strives to achieve them.

It's rather that I never felt that I had to wear my love for my country on my sleeve. But this year I decided that the Rightist appropriation of the Flag and the patriotism that it stands for has gone too far. It's my flag too.

And yet, I suspect that in significant ways my flag isn't theirs.

Their flag is a sacred object. The House of Representatives continually passes versions of a constitutional amendment allowing Congress to "prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States [my emphasis]". ("Desecrate", for those who haven't checked their dictionary lately, means "to violate the sacredness of; profane.") When the Supreme Court struck down laws that prohibited burning the flag, William Rehnquist wrote in his dissent of the "[m]illions and millions of Americans [who] regard it with an almost mystical reverence".*

My flag is a symbol. As Alfred Korzybski famously pointed out, the map is not the territory; the symbol is not the reality. The flag is important not in itself but for the values it stands for; it is they that command our respect, and it is through our commitment to them that we honor or dishonor the flag.

It is a particular irony, from this perspective, that the House of Representatives has voted to "protect the flag" by curtailing one of the very freedoms it symbolizes: the freedom to dissent. From the beginning, dissent has been central to the American system. Two presidents who served a hundred years apart insisted on this in no uncertain terms:

Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.
     - Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809)
To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.
     - Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909)

Sadly, if we travel forward another hundred years, we reach an Administration with little use for dissent, from John Ashcroft, who said to critics of the USA PATRIOT Act, "your tactics only aid terrorists", to Karl Rove, who implied that liberals, by their outcry against prisoner abuse at Guantánamo, had intentionally increased the danger to members of the U.S. armed forces. They tell us that it is patriotism to defend our borders but treason to defend our ideals.

No, I don't fly their flag. I fly a flag that says this country is honorable not just for what it is, but for what it could be; not for the physical security of its "homeland", but for its founding principles, and the hope that we may still achieve them.

*This reverence can be taken to astonishing extremes. Over the weekend I chanced upon a segment of the children's program K.I.C.K.S. Club on the Daystar Evangelical cable network, which followed up a homily on patriotism with a graphic showing a constellation of American flags surrounding the verse "and his banner over me was love", from the Song of Solomon. The promotion of the flag from a symbol of an earthly nation to God's Own Banner is just another symptom of the unhistorical "Christian Nation" nonsense we hear these days from prominent Religious Right figures like Roy Moore and Franklin Graham. (On the other hand, isn't that just what Congress threatens to do by declaring the flag capable of profanation?)

Apparently none of these people got the memo from Christianity Today, which Slacktivist (who knows these things better than I) identifies as "the journal of record for the mainstream evangelical establishment." As an editorial in the July issue points out, "The not-so-subtle equation of America's founding with biblical Christianity has been shown time and again to be historically inaccurate. . . . [M]ost of the founding fathers . . . were not orthodox Christians, but instead were primarily products of the Enlightenment."