Friday, November 12, 2004


U.S. Flag Posted by Hello

Mark Kleiman has some interesting thoughts on rituals, symbols and the significance of the American flag. Some snippets:
We live in a ceremony-poor culture. And I'm afraid my fellow Seculars are in part to blame. Denominational religion is, in many ways, more trouble than it's worth. But it seems to me that Confucius was right about the centrality of ritual in binding a community together.

I suspect that many Seculars don't really object to the theatricality of ritual as much as they do to the affirmations it involves. Joining in a ritual seems to be the opposite of the "thinking for oneself" so beloved of the half-baked Emersonians who still write our school curricula.

I'm sorry that the Pledge to the Flag is such a lousy liturgy and has such a piss-poor bit of ritual built around it, and even sorrier that the Bible-thumpers decided to pollute that simple common patriotic act with a touch of forced worship. But the idea of some sort of daily patriotic act by schoolchildren, which many of my friends find slightly disgusting, seems to me a sound one.

And the flag itself, which doesn't appeal to me at all as a piece of graphic design or heraldry, and which represents a nation whose flaws I could catalogue as well as anyone else, is still our Flag.

My personal opinion concerning some of these rituals is a bit different. I confess to getting a bit choked up watching the American Flag flutter beneath the afternoon sun at a rodeo I attended several years ago. It seemed the perfect encapsulation of much of what is great and good about this country. But I suppose I do find the rote recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance to be a bit artificial and stultifying. (And even as a kid I wondered what the big deal was about the flag itself. No problem with "to the Republic for which it stands" but why pledge allegiance to the flag itself?) But an interesting thing about the ritual of presenting the flag and singing the national anthem before sporting events and the like is that it isn't required by the state. Rather, it is a voluntary expression of patriotism/nationalism of the type that some foreign observers find so perplexing and troubling about Americans.

As for the more general point of living in a ceremony-poor culture, I couldn't agree more. An example: shortly after 9/11, the condominium complex in which I lived at the time announced that there would be a candlelight vigil held in the evening. My wife, kids, and I attended along with many of our neighbors. We all brought, lit, and held candles but no one seemed to know what else to do. We mostly sat in silence until someone finally suggested in a rather timid voice that we should sing the national anthem. So we sang and that was essentially the end of it. It occurred to me at the time that we had no shared ritual tradition (other than the fairly empty symbol of burning candles--what does that mean anyway?) upon which to draw in this rather dire situation.

Kleiman goes on to make a more narrow political point about the flag:
Think about it: when you pass a car on the highway and see an American flag bumper sticker, what do you assume about the political views of the driver? Right. So do I. And so do all those voters whose behavior you simply can't understand. At some level, many of them were voting for the party that wasn't made uncomfortable by the sight of an American flag bumper sticker.

The habit on the anti-Vietnam War left of dishonoring our flag and honoring that of our enemies wasn't really very widespread. But it wasn't entirely made up, either. And its result was to allow the right to seize the flag as a partisan symbol, giving its candidates an advantage they still enjoy. If we want to start winning elections, the first thing to do is to recapture the flag for our side.
So here's my idea, which I offer to any seeker of the Democratic nomination for 2008 who wants to take it: ask your supporters NOT to put your bumper sticker on their cars without a separate American flag bumper sticker, or to wear your campaign button without an American flag lapel pin. Yes, that will make some of your potential supporters uncomfortable. But that's exactly the problem we're trying to solve.
Anecdotal evidence from my neck of the woods would seem to support Kleiman's point. From time to time I tried to make the mind-numbing commute up I-95 go by more quickly by counting the number of cars with Bush or Kerry bumper stickers as well as the number of cars that had a campaign bumper sticker as well as either an American Flag or a "support our troops" sticker or ribbon. I don't recall ever seeing a "support our troops" yellow (or red, white, and blue) ribbon alongside a Kerry-Edwards sticker and I can't recall if I ever saw a flag alongside a Kerry sticker.

For some of the more left-leaning of Kerry supporters, this would be consistent because, in the words of Katha Politt, "the flag stands for jingoism and vengeance and war." But I suspect that many, many more are closer to Kleiman on this issue: the U.S. is hardly without faults and flaws, but it still is "our flag." I hope Americans of all political persuasions heed his advice.

All I can think of saying is "Amen". We're all Americans on the Left or on the Right...

But so are John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, and so many others...

We need to identify the common threads of America that are right and good and bring us together... something a little deeper than "Hotdogs and Apple Pie"... and get our leaders to emphasize the similarities between Americans of various faiths, races, etc... and emphasize the differences between Americans and those who seek to destroy our democracy and our freedoms...

Not an easy task since there are many on the extreme Left and extreme Right who seek to overthrow our Constitution... but maybe that Great Document is the best place to start...
Excellent discussion on lapel pins. I bookmarked your blog. I have my own lapel pins blog if you want to take a look.
Very nice work on your blog, It was fun to read! I am still not done reading everything, but I bookmarked you! I really like reading about lapel pins and I even have an lapel pins secrets blog if you want some more content to discuss.
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