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Fighting with Pinpricks: The real American flag

By Jon Lange

Section: Opinions

February 1, 2008

When I was in fourth grade, my school held a patriotic essays and poem contest. The winner was to read his or her work at the grand opening ceremony for the school’s newly constructed wing. Entry into this contest was compulsory for all students. I don’t remember feeling any great patriotic fervor at the age of ten, but I do remember that I desperately wanted to win. My friend Stephanie told me that she was doing her essay on the meaning of the flag and that such an essay was bound to win, so I—along with a least half of my class—set about decoding the symbolism of our nation’s glorious standard.

I had no doubt about the superiority of my submission. Unlike my classmates, I carefully traced the history of the flag, noting pretentiously that the thirteen strip flag of 1996 was clearly superior to the 15 stripe flag of 1795, because the 13 stripe version showed the proper respect for our history. My essay was strewn with similarly hollow balderdash, but I remember being particularly proud of this argument. I pictured the judges sitting back in their chairs reading the essay and saying aloud, “yes, I guess 13 stripes really are better than 15.”

My teacher, Mrs. Carson, was tasked with reviewing all our submissions and sending the best entries on to the school board which would decide the contest’s final outcome. After a few days work I strode confidently up to her desk and stood before her while she read my submission. She looked up at me and said something to the effect of, “This is all very good, but you never say what the flag means to you.” I was stunned; I thought for a long moment before replying with, of all things, the truth. “The flag” I said “doesn’t mean anything to me.” Needless to say, I lost the competition; my friend Rob won with an absolutely jejune acrostic poem about freedom.

I had forgotten this story for years, but it all came back to me last week when I read Michael Goldman’s article discussing the recently defeated Ziv flag resolution. My childhood apathy towards the flag, I now realize, has burgeoned into an adult antipathy. I’ve come to dislike the flag not only because it is a cluttered asymmetrical mess, possessing neither the effortless beauty of le drapeau tricolore nor the intricate splendor of the Zimbabwean soapstone bird, but also because our patriots use the flag as a blunt instrument with which to bludgeon their ideological opponents and enforce a whitewashed version of our history.

Our patriots hasten to remind us of all we owe this symbol. “If not for this country and its flag” they tell us, “you’d be dead or enslaved.” But, if the flag is the symbol of our liberation and indeed, of our very existence, is it not also the symbol of those 4 million dead Vietnamese, those million dead Iraqis and the countless others who owe their permanent non-existence to the benevolent empire which our patriot friends wish so colorfully to celebrate? It is, in short, the symbol not only of 1940s anti-fascist commitment, but also of the inhumane non-intervention which allowed fascism to roll blithely over skulls across Iberia. It is symbol of support for Pinochet, the Shah, and the recently deceased Suharto. Indeed, when we pledge allegiance to the flag, we also—in the logic of our patriots—pledge our allegiance to an archipelago of military dictatorships from Argentina to Greece. That is to say, the Ziv flag was not only a fire hazard, but also a threat to public health, because a cloth so heavy with corpses can but be wrought with untold disease.

The American flag is a disgusting symbol, but my problem with flags is far bigger. We must never forget that before flags became idols, something for patriots to worship, it was a technological innovation with a distinct purpose. The flag emerged as an aide in warfare which could identify particular groups of soldiers, commanders, and armies during the confusion of battle. With this history, we should not be surprised to find that few flags are clean.

So what are we to do with the flag? Certainly we should not flaunt it as our patriots demand. It is, at the very least, impolite to continue boasting about our superiority over the people we’ve killed. We should reach instead for the other technological tradition of flags: the maritime tradition in which flags were used to communicate—sometimes in friendship, sometimes in hostility—between ships. We could devise a new flag with the purpose not of covering over our historical faults and trumpeting our bloody supremacy but of communicating something more valuable to the rest of the world. We should begin, I think, by designing a flag which says, “We’re sorry.”

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