This weekend we celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence. They weekend is traditionally celebrated by gathering with friends and/or family, cooking out, setting off and watching fireworks, and flying the flag. But, I do not revere the flag like many do. That may appear to be unpatriotic, or even blasphemous to some. Allow me to explain.
I have a problem with imbuing any inanimate object with so much symbolism that it becomes more powerful than that which it represents. All over Facebook and other social media, I see posts exhorting that people will never step on the flag, never burn it, that the flag is what our troops fight to defend, etc. I support respecting the flag, but I also believe treading upon it and burning it is valid and necessary free speech. Since when is a symbol more important than the actual freedoms it represents? You may not like it, but our freedoms come with compromises, one of them being that not everyone feels or acts the same way you do.
There have also been a flood of posts and memes inaccurately bemoaning the myth that the Pledge of Allegiance is no longer recited in schools. I always thought it odd that we pledged allegiance to a piece of colored cloth, anyway. Shouldn’t we be pledging our allegiance to the government and the freedoms it represents first and foremost? “I pledge allegiance to the flag… and to the Republic for which it stands.” Why is the Republic relegated to secondary status behind the flag? Why do we need the flag as an intermediary? That may seem like quibbling, but I firmly believe it has given us a generation of citizens that places allegiance to the flag over allegiance to the freedoms it represents.
The reality is that the flag is a piece of cloth. We have chosen to imbue it with significance and symbolism. I fully understand and accept that it represents the freedoms which we enjoy and that veterans look to it as a symbol of what they fought to protect. But, since it merely functions as a symbol, I do not revere it. I respect it, I feel emotion when I see it and sing the National Anthem, but I refuse to revere It, to make it more powerful than a symbol. I DO revere the freedoms we enjoy, I revere the positive values we endorse in both the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, but I also revere the opportunity we are given to change and adapt, the opportunity to constantly and openly criticize, improve, and renew our nation.
If the flag represents our country, then it represents everything we are about. That means it represents 239-plus years of the systematic destruction of indigenous tribes in the name of greed and expansion. It also represents a sad history of exploiting natural resources to the point of extinction and depletion. It represents the fact that when this country was founded, slavery was legal and those slaves were counted as only 3/5 of a person. It represents a country that for it’s first 144 years, refused the basic right of voting to women. It represents a country that spends more on war and the military than the next 26 countries combined and, for some reason, considers that a good thing.
I know that sounds negative, and it is. But it is fact. The flag may represent freedoms and rights that every day are expanded to cover more people, but there is such a long way to go. And it has taken immense pain and suffering to expand those rights.
So, maybe I need to re-frame my own perspective toward the flag. Instead of mooring it in the mistakes of the past, maybe I need to see the symbolism of constant change and progress. Instead of violence and greed, maybe I need to see the sacrifices made during the difficult journey to build a more free society. Instead of sitting idly by while politicians and hate groups co-opt the symbol of our country, I need to exercise the freedoms given to all of us, and oppose hatred and intolerance.
I will do that. And I will do it while maintaining respect for the flag, but without turning it into an immutable, infallible idol.