I was raised in a military household and went on to serve in the Navy myself, the latest in a long line of veterans easily documented back to Revolutionary War times, and likely before. One facet of this upbringing was being properly trained, very early on, in Flag Etiquette and the U.S. Flag Code. I know how to fold a flag, how to hang a flag (and when to do so, equally importantly), how to treat a flag, how to dispose of a flag, and how to respect a flag. Those rules were just sort of ambient background to the way I was raised, and to the ways my peers were raised around me. I followed, and follow, those rules, because they’re the rules.
While living on various military bases around the country over my formative years, the end of the duty day was usually marked by the retreat bugle call being broadcast over the base public announcement system, and even as little kids and surly teenagers, when we were outdoors and heard this, we stopped what we were doing, faced the closest flag (or the source of the music) in a posture of respect, and were quiet and still until the bugle call was complete. Not a big deal. Not a burden. Just something we did. As an adult, I’ve never chosen to hang or display a flag on my own property, in large part because I would feel an obligation to follow all of the rules, every day, associated with raising, caring for, lowering and disposing of said flag, and the benefits I would have received from flying said flag would not outweigh the costs associated with its respectful maintenance. That said, I still have my grandfather’s memorial flag, and my mother has my father’s memorial flag, both properly folded with cartridges tucked within from the rifle rounds fired at their funerals. They’re fitting mementos.
So, yes, the American flag can certainly be a powerful public symbol and statement, but for me, personally, it’s also simply the objectification of some basic rules and rituals for doing certain things, and for not doing certain other things. Those rules and rituals are deeply embedded and imprinted in my mental and emotional coding, by virtue of my upbringing. As an adult, I react to the use and misuse of the flag at a nearly subconscious level accordingly, emotionally responding in set and predictable ways, even if I don’t intellectually process those responses, or even if they don’t really make sense within my adult life and worldview. They’re hard-wired into my operating system. Another example of that type of hard-wiring has to do with the Christian rules under which my childhood household was strictly governed, where taking the LORD’s name in vain was a deep affront that would elicit a sharp negative response from the adults around me. Because of this, I have stronger emotional reactions (but not logical ones) to someone shrieking “Oh My GAWWWWDDDD!!!” around me today than I do to someone dropping an F-Bomb or other stronger profanity. Doesn’t make sense, I know. But that’s how I’m built.
My gut reactions to improper displays or uses of the American flag tend to be equivalent in cases of both intentional and ignorant abuse of the object. It’s annoying to me to see an improperly hung flag at some sporting, political, or cultural event, or to see a flag flapping, unlit, at night, in the rain. It’s also annoying to me to see people trying to make statements or elicit responses by overt desecration of a flag, e.g. burning one in public. I’m certainly not in favor of a flag-burning amendment to the Constitution criminalizing that act, but I’d still prefer that people not do it. There’s a powerful scene in C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength where the novel’s nominal protagonist is asked to stomp on and curse at an image of Jesus on the cross to demonstrate his absolute objectivity to the rationalist cabal that employs him. He refuses to do so, not out of any belief in what the Crucifix actually means, but because the act seems childish, pointless, petulant and unimaginative, a physical punishment of an inanimate object. That’s how I feel about people who burn flags. It’s a lazy way to make a statement. There are many more powerful, creative, and impactful ways to express protest than that. I’d choose those.
For most of my life, these responses and feelings have been essentially value-neutral. It wasn’t like the Republican kids on the military bases where I was raised stopped playing when the retreat bugle call was sounded, while the Democratic kids romped on. It wasn’t about civilians vs military, nor North vs South, nor rural vs urban, nor white vs black, nor any other sort of dichotomy. One can certainly question the weird cultural veneration we have for our flag (I know many of my European friends find it bizarre that we ask our children to pledge allegiance to the flag, before they pledge allegiance to the Republic for which it stands), but the symbol always seemed to me to reasonably represent us all, and my default sense was that most people felt that way, if they actually ever bothered to think about it.
(Note well: In all cases here, I’m speaking about the flying of our flag on our own national soil. I certainly understand and appreciate that folks abroad will have understandably different and valid thoughts, feelings and reactions to seeing it flown on theirs. I also note and understand that my feelings and experiences with regard to flag iconography are based on being an economically-secure white male in a country that skews temperamentally toward patriarchy, income inequity, and white supremacy, so others’ mileage may certainly vary on this particular hot take).
I’m writing this post today, after thinking about the topic for a while, because that long-time sense of value-neutrality (subject to the previous paragraph’s caveats) associated with the American flag being displayed in domestic spaces has changed dramatically for me in recent years. That evolution has seemed most pronounced through the last couple of Presidential election cycles and their aftermaths. It has been fueled and stoked by the right-wing traditional and social media’s forceful and unilateral appropriation of our national symbols to represent their values and interests, and only their values and interests. I wish it weren’t the case, but when I’m out driving around and a pick-up truck passes me with four American flags flapping on posts jammed into the corners of its hauling bed, I know exactly what party that driver votes for, and what ex-President he or she is likely a fan of.
For the extreme right-wing and its various mouthpieces, over-use of the American flag has become a key tool to publicly demonstrating that they are somehow more American than all the other Americans, of whom they disapprove. This bothers me on a variety of planes, perhaps most especially related to the fact that I once took an oath and actually served the country the flag represents, for better or for worse, while many of those who hug the flag closest today never made such a commitment, and yet question my patriotism because I don’t share their political views. The right-wing does not own the historical imagery and iconography of our Nation, as much as many of their loudest voices want to claim said rights, and punish and pummel those who do not perceive and use them in similar fashions.
But even beyond that point, here’s the key rub to me: the loudest factions of the right-wing have appropriated the American flag for their own purposes, but very, very few of them seem to have bothered to understand the proper ways in which said object and symbol are to be displayed and respected. In claiming their deep, abiding and “patriotic” love for the flag, they routinely debase and desecrate it, in how they fly it, where they fly it, when they fly it, how they use it, and (most offensively) how they modify it. Putting Donald Trump’s name or likeness on an American flag? That’s desecration. The “blue lives matter” flag? Regardless of how you feel about the police and your support thereof, that’s desecration. Carrying and flying the American flag as a co-equal standard to a Trump flag, or a “Don’t Tread of Me” flag, or (worst of all) a Confederate flag? That’s desecration. Using an American flag still on its staff to beat and bludgeon police officers in the United States Capitol? Desecration. And insurrection.
In our modern culture wars and the political frays that define them, I know that the issue of flags is certainly nowhere near the top of the heap in terms of its meaning and impact. But in the same ways that people burning flags for attention are making lazy and offensive statements, people waving, wearing, or displaying flags for attention in incorrect and improper fashions are making equally lazy and offensive statements, with some little extra dollops of ignorance and hypocrisy tossed in for good measure.
So how has it come to pass that the people who make the most histrionic public statements and displays of adoration and admiration for the American flag seem incapable of properly presenting and caring for it? Anecdotally, I’d note that the modern American far right-wing just seems to love its flags in general, while the left-wing tends to prefer bumper stickers and placards and signs. I’d like to see a cultural study on if and why that’s actually the case. I believe it contributes to the right’s lack of respect for the American flag because many of those folks just see that one flag as part of their set of multiple flags, each one making a statement, all of those statements seen as equal in value and heft. And the cynic in me also believes that the right-wing is better at the grift and greed aspects of things than the left-wing is, and there’s more money to be made in flags than there is in bumper stickers, so that’s what they push, and that’s what they pimp, and their market eats it up, yum.
Given how I was raised, I find it sad to reach a point where my basic and immediate reaction to seeing American flags being prominently flown on private property (homes, barns, vehicles, boats, etc.) is to presume the flag-waver’s intent is one that I don’t like, or that I disagree with. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is. And having put that out there, I don’t really have a conclusion or a recommendation with which to end this post, other than to observe the current state of affairs, state my personal reactions thereto, and wish that the adults around me would be as respectful of the American flag as I was taught and expected to be as a child. It’s not hard, really. Especially if you actually believe in the tenets and concepts that the flag represents, rather than just considering it as a weaponized asset in your efforts to proudly own the libs.