The Atrophy of an American Symbol

Back in the ’60s, Independence Day on Stevenson Avenue in Akron, Ohio was probably no different than it was in any other town throughout America. In fact, I suspect it wasn’t much different than it is here in Powell today. More than the fireworks, I remember the Fourth of July and the American flags that suddenly appeared in the early morning hours on almost every front porch in our neighborhood. Back then, the simple act of displaying the flag on Memorial Day, Flag Day, Independence Day, and Veterans’ Day was a show of patriotism.

I suppose Old Glory’s popularity has grown since my childhood. The flag, its likenesses, and colour scheme have appeared nearly everywhere—matchbook covers, clothing, lapel pins, shot glasses, ball point pens, football helmets, notebooks, bumper stickers and used car lots. And these days it seems the flag is getting more exposure than ever, thanks to the events of the Gulf War, September 11, Afghanistan and most recently the evolving boondoggle in Iraq. Yet, back in the ’60s when the Vietnam War was producing more occupied American body bags than any other conflict since, I find it hard to believe that the country’s barometric pressure for patriotism was any less than it is today.

So, what’s with the flag and the deluge for displaying it everywhere on anything at anytime?

Has flying the American flag beyond the flagpole become a trend? Have we become paranoid, thinking that if we don’t display Old Glory in some form we might be thought of as un-American? Are we so insecure that we need to constantly remind ourselves that we are Americans in these tasteless presentations of our national colours?

Every time I see the likes of a Ford Taurus with a little American flag (in multiples at times) waving frantically above the car’s roofline, I’m reminded of a circus or parade. I say, let’s leave such tacky decoration of our vehicles and other personal belongings to the Shriners in their tiny cars that ebb and flow in any given community parade. Further, it’s disheartening enough to see Old Glory burned in the streets of Baghdad let alone ripped to shreds as the result of 500 miles of Interstate driving at 70 m.p.h.—regardless of its size.

Is it a wonder why we hear of America and Americans being despised throughout the world? We constantly wear our patriotism on our sleeve with relentless visual and verbal reminders of America’s greatness to the world even when they surely know of it. What great person remains great when they keep on reminding everyone around them how great they are?

If Jesus dwelled amongst us here in America now, would his pickup truck have a “God Bless America” bumper sticker on it? While sitting under a giant cottonwood tree just off of Lane 8 all day, would Buddha wear a sleeveless t-shirt with a big American flag on it? And finally would Plato quote Socrates as he sipped from his huge, 48-ounce insulated coffee mug with Old Glory screenprinted on its plastic exterior? Perhaps we would all do well if we were to contemplate the fine line between patriotism and narcissism the next time we are overcome with a sudden urge to show our national pride.

I often ponder the sacredness of the flag when one can buy it (in numerous sizes) at places like Wal-Mart. And it seems the more available they are, the more irresponsible we are regarding their proper care. Once I found a soiled and tattered small flag that probably broke off from one of those “flag-decorated” cars at a busy intersection in Gillette. It was laying on the side of the road with all the other litter that was mindlessly discarded from cars occupied by thoughtless drivers and their passengers. Where is the reverence in this scenario? What if the sacred and consecrated holy eucharist was found right next to the Milky Way candy bars at the local mini-marts? Would it be as sacred? Surely no priest would stand for that.

Most of us will never forget JFK’s famous speech about how we should ask what we can do for our country. I wish our President today would deliver a message with the same impact, challenging all of us to monitor our national enthusiasm and to speak softly especially when travelling abroad. I’m reminded of a joke I heard in New Zealand: You can always tell an American, but you can’t tell him much.” Sometimes our fanatical patriotism reminds me of an oversized TV set in a tiny living room.

Like those summer days on Stevenson Avenue, I still enjoy the home front show of flags on these national holidays despite their worn out use everywhere else. I don’t have an American flag for my front porch and I’m not sure if I’ll ever get one assuming the current glut of red, white and blue continues—America need not shout any louder. Nevertheless, I am hopeful that this country will continue to be blessed as it has been in the past, especially our troops who loyally serve without questioning the judgment of our national leadership. More importantly, I hope other countries that are currently experiencing turmoil, genocide, and economic strife are blessed through it all, especially those where our own less-than-perfect foreign policy has failed them.