Grand Old Flag

This article is an Utne Web classic, originally published in the November/December 2003 issue of Utne.

DURING THE 1991 WAR with Iraq, my father-in-law gave me a flag. It came with an easily assembled pole and bracket designed to display Old Glory at a 45-degree angle on the front porch of our bungalow. I thanked him and stuffed it into the bedroom closet after he left.

On subsequent visits, he never asked me about the flag. I thought at the time that he, a Navy veteran of World War II and a staunch Republican, was just goading his goofy leftist son-in-law and former Air Force sergeant–daring me to shed my dissident pretenses and get with the program. I never did, but I sometimes catch myself wondering what I–and other progressive-minded folks–give up by refusing to play the patriot game.

Politically, the price is pretty obvious: Conservatives tar and feather us as enemies of the state and dismiss our opinions as the poisonous rants of traitors. Meanwhile, the president pops in at a flag factory for a photo op and his approval ratings jump a half dozen points.

We all know that patriotism runs a lot deeper than flying the flag on the Fourth of July or mumbling our way through the “Star Spangled Banner” at a football game. It is more often defined these days by blind political conformity, an almost pathological readiness to make war, and a shocking betrayal of civil liberties. But what alternative do progressives offer? How do we seize the patriotic high ground?

THE EASY ANSWER, of course, is to lighten up, embrace the symbols of national pride with the same shallowness as our political leaders, and get back to the real work of social change. Maybe we’ll fool enough people enough of the time to regain our political footing and make a point or two about the minor flaws of our otherwise fabulously great nation. Failing that, we might want to drill down to that core of patriotic ambivalence inside each of us and identify the things we really do love about this country and find ways to celebrate them.

To hear longtime left activists Peter Dreier and Dick Flacks tell it, we might start by remembering our history. Writing in The Nation (June 3, 2002), Dreier and Flacks remind us that many of our nation’s most treasured patriotic symbols were created and promoted by left-leaning Americans hungry for social change.

Take those inspiring lines inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” They were penned by poet Emma Lazarus, a supporter of Henry George’s “socialistic” single-tax program. Or check out the origins of “America the Beautiful.” The lyrics were written in 1893 by poet Katharine Lee Bates, an anti-imperialist university professor active in Boston progressive reform movements. Even that perennial political football the Pledge of Allegiance has progressive roots. It was authored in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a prominent Christian socialist at the time who, according to Dreier and Flacks, hoped that the pledge would “promote a moral vision to counter the individualism embodied in capitalism and expressed in the climate of the Gilded Age.” (Remember, “under God” was added by Congress in 1954 during the Red Scare.)

More recently, Aaron Copland created his symphonic classics Fanfare for the Common Man and Lincoln Portrait, two Independence Day favorites, in the 1930s, when he was part of a composers collective dedicated to writing music that honored the working class. And America’s unofficial national anthem, “This Land Is Your Land,” was written in 1940, when folk singer/songwriter Woody Guthrie was well connected with the Communist Party.

“The progressive authors of much of America’s patriotic iconography rejected blind nationalism, militaristic drumbeating, and sheeplike conformism,” write Dreier and Flacks. “So it would be a dire mistake to allow, by default, jingoism to become synonymous with patriotism and the American spirit.”

Twenty-first-century America, of course, is a different world from the country that spawned these progressives of the Gilded Age and the Great Depression. Theirs was largely an immigrant culture whose memory of injustices on foreign shores served as a daily reminder of America’s promise. And there was, I think, a sense of wonder that still surrounded the American experiment, a feeling perhaps that our democratic structures and civic commons were still capable of being shaped by regular people. It was, in other words, a flag worth waving.

Immigrants still stream to our borders with hopes of a better life, but today it’s hard to think of the USA as a work in progress. Its political culture is rigid and systemized. Its economy rules the world; its military might is virtually unchallenged. Its astounding affluence argues more eloquently against dissent than any patriotic rhetoric. It is, in many ways, the country many of our forebears dreamed it would be.

Still, it’s hard to sing the praises of a nation whose leaders regularly treat the rest of the world with open contempt and whose dominant culture glorifies getting over giving. From the point of view of other countries in the global community, you have to admit, America is not always a good neighbor. We play our music too loud, drive our vehicles all over everyone else’s lawns, and like to shoot out the streetlights on the weekends.

Yes, we are richly blessed. And, yes, I’d rather be living here than trapped in the terrifying squalor of a Palestinian refugee camp or in a cinder-block apartment building amid the political and economic chaos of post-communist Russia. But that doesn’t mean I need to run Old Glory up the flagpole every time American soldiers are deployed somewhere around the world or my local Chevy dealer announces a factory clearance sale.

BUT WHAT DOES IT MEAN to be progressively patriotic? How do we celebrate a love of country in a way that feels authentic, in a way that honors the strides we’ve made and recognizes those we still need to make? Remembering our history is a good start–acknowledging the power the American idea held for those who came before us, and working to keep it alive for those who will follow. I can proudly wave the flag in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, Margaret Sanger and Susan B. Anthony, Samuel Gompers and Cesar Chavez.

I can also be an unabashed patriot for my neighborhood and happily pledge my allegiance to folks down the street who pitch in when one of us is in need. And I’ll wave the flag gladly to celebrate our all-American right to be left alone by government, and for our free press, and for the privilege of challenging our elected representatives.

I’d also argue that patriotism does not need to focus only on national holidays. I rather like thinking of our annual May Day Festival in south Minneapolis as a patriotic occasion. Here we are, 10 or 20 thousand souls basking in the first marvelous days of spring and espousing all sorts of lefty, anarcho-pagan beliefs, and I’d like somebody, just once, to unfurl an American flag and stubbornly hold court about how it’s a pretty great country that doesn’t send out the National Guard to shut this thing down.

Why not unfurl the flag next time you march against some local injustice, reveling in the rights our nation bestows on dissenters? Why not belt out “America the Beautiful” next time you picket in support of an environmental or labor cause? It might remind you and your comrades of the shoulders you’re standing on.

Rather than blind conformity to the current regime, patriotism could just as easily mean openly embracing the progressive ideals upon which the nation was founded–corny old 18th-century concepts like liberty, equality, justice, and freedom–and attaching them to the issues we care about. Fair wages for service employees, equal opportunity for immigrants, and affordable housing for the homeless can all be seen as patriotic efforts.

NO MATTER WHERE WE focus our patriotic efforts, we first need to shed the conceit that tells us that any identification with the flag is just frivolous symbolism that links us with George W. Bush, John Ashcroft, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld. That is not true.

As we saw so vividly in the aftermath of 9/11, patriotism is a powerful message that touches millions of ordinary Americans, many of whom disagree with the current administration on important issues and would welcome a progressive political alternative. By disavowing or ridiculing these symbols, we lose an opportunity to reach those people with ideas they may also embrace.

But this is not just about forwarding a set of political ideas or winning elections. It’s about reclaiming a share of a cultural tradition that binds us together as a people. It’s about participating again in the big conversation that is supposed to be the American experiment.

So I’m going to take that flag out of my closet and fly it proudly, for my own reasons. Let’s stand up for our country–at least those progressive values deep at the heart of the American idea. Go ahead: qualify, equivocate, blush even. I know I will. But let’s find our own unique patriotism and blast our message with all its ambivalence to the rest of the world. It won’t stop politicians from wrapping themselves in the flag, but it just might keep them from using it to smother the rest of us.

Craig Cox is Utne’s executive editor.

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