I’m just old enough to remember Republican outrage after Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman was arrested, in 1968, for desecrating the symbol of our democracy. Called to be dressed down by members of the House Un-American Activities Committee, he’d appeared wearing an American flag as a shirt. Decades later, surprised by seeing Joint Chiefs Chairman Air Force Gen. Richard Myers wearing a flag shirt on Memorial Day in Washington, DC, in 2005, writer, activist, and Yippie co-founder Paul Krassner made the obvious connection to Hoffman, who as the police led him away had been heard to remark, “I only regret that I have but one shirt to give for my country.”
Well, look at the flag these days: It’s ubiquitous, appearing not only on baseball caps and T-shirts (this Disney Mickey U.S. Flag T-shirt should be a collector’s item, at least in Florida), but on pins and bumper stickers, the union downward, all black, or clutched in a screaming bald eagle’s talons. The flag appears on guns and on NRA merchandise. And it flies at night and in rainstorms, “bigly” over banks and used-car lots and the whatevers and whatnots of strip malls because Congress eagerly loosened the rules of display back in the bicentennial year, 1976. Our flags are polyester now, said the lobbyists (with fists full of dollars), so there’s no need to lower them.
Flying the flag became an understandable mania after 9/11. So, the venerable Stars and Stripes flap away, 24/7, in all weather conditions, seldom if ever taken down with any ceremony, until they are faded and ragged. We’ve all seen them.
Where I worked long ago, some of us marveled at the mechanical flagpole outside the entrance to the building that hoisted and lowered the flag on a schedule from a slot near the bottom of the pole. At the end of the day, the flag would just be sucked in. We saw it as a perfect combination of heartless capitalism and faux corporate patriotism: they’d happily dispensed with the job of the person who once did that or, at least, that meaningful part of the job. You can imagine the manufacturer’s slogan: We took away the work of caring for the flag — but none of the patriotism! We made the connection: The company would, as technology allowed, also take away the meaningful parts of our jobs.
It was just a short hop, skip and jump to all of us then watching Donald J. Trump practically dry-humping the flag (“I don’t even ask”) with that hideously transparent smirk on his face, which seems to say, Vlad was right. They’re actually buying this! How many American flags, one wonders, has our endlessly disgraceful and felonious former president violated? If only the sullied flags could testify. Reasonable people of various non-despot–supporting political stripes (you know, Americans) would be wise to reclaim the “Star-Spangled Banner,” the great symbol of our nation, from those who have used it far too long as a mere prop of chauvinism, that unthinking, excessive patriotism. (If you’re a veteran, I completely defer to your right to display the flag anywhere and everywhere.) As uncomfortable as it might feel at first, all of us should join our Republican uncles and third cousins once removed and fly the flag at home.
Why are those absurdly huge flags flying over that bank, grocery, and car lot?
We must reclaim our sense of duty to this always fragile democratic republic, imperfect as it is, lest it be twisted into something that looks awfully like fascism by performative super-patriots pumped up with grievances about others. A frightening number of people in what was once known as the Party of Lincoln, some even members of Congress, apparently have a deeper affection for the Stars and Bars or, rather, its battle flag. Other Trumpists stiff-arm salute a different flag, one representing an utterly evil movement inspired by our most shameful history — one of a myriad of basic historical and sociological realities that Ron DeSantis and others don’t want young people to learn in school because they might correctly feel ashamed of aspects of our history.
At some point around 1971, when Hoffman won his appeal from a three-judge federal court, I was also wearing an American flag dress shirt. There’s a photo in a box (which I now must find) of my very conservative father hugging me as I wore it, likely on my birthday. He may have bought it for me, or more likely my mother, a lifelong liberal, had. In any case, I don’t think I’d wear such a thing now, and not just because prominently wearing the flag has become a symbol for citizens who have a right-wing ideology.
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I have started flying “Old Glory” at home on special days, like today. It’s made in the U.S.A. (unlike my Rural King caps, which, like so much sold at Walmart and other bastions of so-called American pride, are made elsewhere). I’m doing it as a mild form of protest against what I see as its misuse adorning private businesses. During my childhood, I saw flags flying only over schools, libraries, the city hall and other civic buildings we shared and had stakes in as citizens. They were markers of our togetherness, of our social contract. I just want to show due respect.
The offense is to allow the flag to vanish into ubiquity and not be handled with care by children and other citizens.
Why are those absurdly huge flags flying over that bank, grocery, and car lot? You know why, and it’s not about patriotism. Let’s call it what it is: a hypocritical mercantile form of “patriotism,” a misuse of the red, white, and blue. If a supporter of book banning or voter suppression wears the American flag, they become a walking contradiction of terms. I’m flying the flag and reading more deeply about the history of the country because I’m getting older and acutely aware that our democracy is under constant attack now, from outright repugnant fascists (think, say, Steve Bannon or Roger Stone) to those who would like to sell authoritarianism as “illiberal democracy,” as Hungary’s “strongman” Viktor Orban markets it, making it a simulacrum of the real thing. It is what John Quincy Adams, fearing oligarchy, called “the smokescreen of democracy.”
One might argue that compared to the despot-admiring white Christian nationalists and plain old religious grifters in the Trumpist Party who ban books and fight their culture wars and have no interest in governing for all the people, our founding fathers were in spirit, if not always in deed, eminently “woke.” Consider that the next time a Republican who supports censorship or bad mouths the free press or pushes their personal religious beliefs on the rest of us invokes one of the founders. Using the flag in protest is quintessentially American; the flag cannot be degraded as its status as a potent symbol is being acknowledged. Those smarty-pants Yippies understood that. Burn it, sure, or wear it as a shirt if you’re hauled in to testify to the government on your “un-American” activities. As the Supreme Court has ruled, you have that right. But to wear it on caps and T-shirts saps its power (again, veterans are exempt from any criticism from the likes of me; if I were a veteran, I’d be wearing the flag every minute of the world, as my paternal grandmother might have said). But, generally speaking, if the flag is everywhere, it’s nowhere.
In the sixties, liberals and progressives burned the flag and wore it mockingly as clothing; in response, Reagan Republicans supersized it. That backlash made perfect sense. But given the right’s turn toward authoritarianism, to referring to their political opponents as “the enemy” and “groomers” and daily trafficking in other disinformation, it’s time for the rest of us to reclaim our share of the flag (and the founders and the whole notion of patriotism) — not as some sort of capture the flag game — but to teach our children and grandchildren the actual history of our country, the critical importance of the free press, the civics lessons many schools stopped teaching. The offense is to allow the flag to vanish into ubiquity and not be handled with care by children and other citizens.
Fly it on the official days, which I note tellingly includes Father’s, but not Mother’s, Day. (I think I’ll also honor Aug. 4, designated “Freedom of the Press Day” for one year, in 1985, and also my wife’s birthday.) Don’t allow our Republican friends and family members (especially Trumpists) to monopolize the most potent symbol of democracy the world has ever known, especially when some of them are working tirelessly to undermine it. Still, we do progress as a nation for all. Our flag does, after all, fly over a country that made Juneteenth a national holiday.