Many people outside the United States believe that Americans have a “flag obsession”, an almost cult like fetish worship. Why is this the case? What, in fact, does the flag mean to Americans? What does it mean to you Americans reading this? Let me know. This is a conversation.
The elevated status given to the American flag as “the” symbol of America is due to the fact that as a symbol, it represents more than one ideal. It has many meanings to nearly all Americans. It embodies patriotism, freedom, national pride, unity, history, democracy, and many other values that Americans resonate with.
From an early age we “pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America” five times a week. We hold our hand over our heart as we say the pledge, symbolizing our love for our flag. We are told stories of wars where the flag rallied troops to victories. When we attend sporting events, we sing a song to the flag; the same song everywhere, before every sporting event. We stand when we sing and we again place our hand over our heart. We remove our hats; everyone does this. Should you fail to observe this respect to our flag you would surely be stared at, sneered at, and maybe even have some harsh words spoken to you. We are taught to respect the flag, never allowing it to touch the ground. In 1989, 36 U.S.C. 173-178 was passed into law that provided criminal penalties for desecration of the flag (this law was later held to be unconstitutional in 1990). This symbol, more than any other in America, stands for all of the shared beliefs, values, and ideals that Americans hold sacred.
Symbols and symbol systems define our reality. They allow us to express in physical form intangible values, attitudes, and judgments. From a very young age we are taught these intangible lessons and are told that our flag represents these things. Foreigners view our flag very differently. To them it stands for things like colonialism, force of will, and even “the evil Satan”. As time moves on, some Americans are beginning to change their attitude toward the flag. Candidate Obama was clobbered because he didn’t wear a flag lapel pin. He was called unpatriotic. This is how ingrained our view of the flag is. But many Americans, immersed in two undeclared and unlawful wars, are beginning to wonder what the flag “really”, stands for. Warrant-less wiretapping, the capture of personal emails, and torture of foreign prisoners has made an impact on our own view of what our flag is. Are those qualities who we are? Do we want to live in country that exhibits and practices those behaviors? Could this symbol of all that is good in this country, become a symbol for what we do to others? As culture changes, so do our symbols. What will become of the flag?