During my Army brat childhood, the only color I saw more often than the red, white and blue of the American flag was the olive drab of my father’s uniforms. My first flag-specific memory is of standing with my Brownie troop in front of the central fountain at the local mall, waving mini flags to the rousing accompaniment of “Stars and Stripes Forever.” While my racing pulse could easily be dismissed as stage fright, at the time it felt like the swelling of patriotic pride.
The following year was 1976, the Bicentennial. The Independence Day parade that year cemented my love for the flag—forever linking those stars and stripes with prancing horses, booming cannons and, perhaps most importantly, to popcorn, cotton candy and dripping ice cream cones.
In the decades since, my relationship with the flag, like my relationship with cotton candy and ice cream, has grown considerably more complex. A flag flapping in the wind still has power over me, but that power is now tempered by concern over the state of the republic for which that flag stands.
I believe that the values symbolized by the flag—liberty and justice for all, just for starters—are goals we as a nation often fall woefully short of. I don’t believe the Pledge of Allegiance, without or without the contentious “under God,” should be mandatory because I question the value of reflexive, unquestioning loyalty. And, whether I personally find it effective or merely obnoxious, I absolutely support your right to make a political statement by burning or otherwise defacing the flag.
In light of that last fact, it probably seems all the more contradictory that very little upsets me more than the sight of a flag being displayed well past its prime. The sight of a flag hanging in tatters distresses me in a way that the deliberate defacing of a flag to make a political statement does not. When an activist sets an American flag alight, it’s the expression of a passionate belief. When a flag is left to disintegrate in the elements, it is, at best, a sign of good intentions defeated by neglect.
After the attacks of September 11, 2001, America’s on-again, off-again romance with Her flag was rekindled. The display of pride and solidarity was heartwarming, but now, years after the attacks, it seems as if many of those very flags are hanging still, much the worse for wear.
Around our town and county—and around the rest of the country, I’m sure—there are flags that have gotten snagged so that rather than hanging regally, they are all corners and folds, like some sort of accidental origami. Others have wrapped themselves around their poles, looking like sloppily wrapped burritos with a corner of red, white and blue tortilla left to flap in the wind. There are flags falling apart at the seams—including one I’ve seen whose stripes flap independently of one another. It seems I can’t leave the house without noticing yet another tattered flag.
All my stewing about the neglect of the flag got me wondering about what our flags say about our love for our country and what passes for patriotism. As upsetting as these abandoned flags are to see, maybe they are sending a necessary message.
In times of drama and tragedy—like September 11—we are out in legions, flying flags, raising money, loving our country, making a stand. When it comes to day-to-day living, though, to the issues that profoundly affect the lives of millions of Americans—poverty, inadequate health coverage, unemployment, lack of affordable housing and a host of other issues of quiet desperation in the lives of so many—most of us can’t be bothered. While there are organizations and individuals making valuable efforts, the majority of us remain steadfastly uninvolved. Not only are we rarely motivated to contact our elected representatives, pathetically few of us even show up to choose those officials. And fewer of us still are thoroughly educated on the issues we expect our elected representatives to handle on our behalf.
The events of the past several years have shown us that the barely noticed workings of our nation deserve our attention as much as the dramatic moments. Until we’ve learned that lesson, perhaps the hung and forgotten flags are an all too appropriate symbol of our patriotism and citizenship, of the privileges we take for granted and the rights we regularly fail to use to our nation’s full advantage.