Date: July 1, 2009
Byline: Timothy Egan
Capture the Flag
Traveling in California and New York over the last couple of weeks, I noticed something in the summer landscape of these two deeply blue states that is more reminiscent of rural America this time of year — a surfeit of American flags.
Among the offerings of street vendors in Harlem and outdoor stalls near the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the flag is often fused with the image of President Obama, a burst of color against a bleak wall, sometimes with a Superman motif. In California, I saw Old Glory on bicycles in the Bay Area, on backpacks in Yosemite and at campgrounds under the redwoods.
It's not unusual to see a flag in liberal provinces, of course. But in the Bush years of sanctioned torture and war built on deceit, many Americans withdrew from overt displays of patriotism. Some said they were ashamed of their country.
While following the length of the Lewis and Clark Trail several years ago, I was struck by the huge number of flags in places like rural Missouri, Iowa, South Dakota and Montana. On Indian reservations, the same thing — though often with tribal symbols superimposed. But in the major cities along the trail, St. Louis and Portland among them, I was hard-pressed to find a flag in front of a home.
I wondered whether urban Americans, overwhelmingly Democratic, had something against the flag, or if they felt the country was no longer theirs. Now you can ask the same question of the other side of the political spectrum.
Obama, the candidate, tried to explain why he initially stopped wearing a flag pin in 2007. No doubt, he was speaking for a lot of fellow citizens. "Shortly after 9/11, particularly as we were talking about the Iraq War, that became a substitute for, I think, true patriotism," he said in 2007. "I decided I won't wear that pin on my chest."
Obama's comment sounded like a more tortured version of Samuel Johnson's aphorism about patriotism being the last refuge of scoundrels. Into this fray, thankfully, came Stephen Colbert, with so much overt flag-waving and eagle-flying that he neutered the public blowhards who costumed themselves in red, white and blue at the peak of the Bush presidency.
The flag pin issue was a phony controversy, given that not all presidential candidates of both parties wore it, yet only Obama faced the daily scrutiny. But it goes to something deeper and more visceral — situational flag waving.
Now the pin is back on Obama's lapel, and has been for more than a year. And Americans who had shunned the stars and stripes for whatever reason will proudly raise the flag this Fourth of July. The same country that turned away from its ideals in the runup to the Iraq War is opening its embassies this Independence Day under a president whose personal narrative shows the promise inherent in that flag.
Flag sales are robust, even during this horrid recession, several of the country's biggest sellers told me.
At the same time, in deep red states like Texas, where secession talk heated up in the first months of the Obama presidency, there has been a passionate public embrace of the vaunted Lone Star flag, symbol of independence dating to the days of the Republic of Texas. Incidentally, the blue in that flag stands for loyalty, as defined by state code.
In this cooling of nationalistic ardor, Texans are little different from those who felt left out during the previous eight years, including Obama. After George W. Bush won his second term, a Web retailer started selling "the official flag of the United Blue States of America," which had 20 stars — one for each of the 19 states, and the District of Columbia, that went Democratic in 2004.
It would be nice if those on the losing side of a national election, or those who are appalled by the policies of a given president, felt they could still show the American flag. As a symbol it represents ideas, sovereignty, history. It belongs to no party, no states, no president, no campaign, no single issue, no professional sport and no retailer.
If your great-great-grandparents were bought and sold in chains at slave markets in the south, then perhaps you might have reason for mixed feelings about the flag.
If you were one of thousands of American citizens interned by your own government during World War II, then again, the flag would give you pause at times.
Or worse, if you were run off your land, the land of your ancestors, and not granted full citizenship until 1924 — American Indians, a storyline whose only changes are geographic — the flag can seem foreign, at best.
The challenge is to look at the whole of it — the awful history with the daring leaps of progress — and see something living, ever-evolving.
In Amarillo, at the depth of the Great Depression, Texans stitched together what was called the largest American flag, a tribute to President Franklin Roosevelt during a visit. Then it started to rain.
People strained to hold the giant flag in place, as it grew heavy with water from above. The colors bled onto the street, into gutters, and still these Americans, nearly broken by the dual blows of dust and despair, these people who felt somewhat betrayed by a country they hardly recognized, held the flag. They were clinging to something much more lasting than fabric.
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