Capture the FlagCapture the Flag
by Woden Teachout

My relationship with the flag seems to have always been off-kilter and uncomfortable, and I’ve never been able to explain exactly why, either to myself or to anyone else. I’ve never had the same religious objections to flags which some people have, and yet I’ve felt some common cause with their recoiling from what seems like holy worship of a secular object. I’m greatly moved by the deep implications of a phrase like “liberty and justice for all”, and yet I squirm when faced with an expectation that I recite the words on demand to a piece of cloth. I’ve always wished I understood what everyone else seems to feel, and that I could feel it too. But the terms in which it was set before me have never been terms which made sense to me. I’ve always conformed on the outside, and always felt uneasy and false on the inside.

I picked up this little book from the “new books” display at the library, curious to see whether it might throw some light on things for me. Basically, it’s a series of historical “snapshots”, capturing the meaning of the flag for various groups of people at eight different moments in American history. One thing that becomes plain almost immediately is that the flag has changed in its uses and symbolism from one generation to the next. If I’d lived in another time and place, I might have lived with a flag symbolism which fitted my mind better. Putting any problem into the bigger picture of historical context is almost always helpful, I find. The way things are, at any given moment in history, is not fixed and inevitable. There are other possibilities, some of them past trials, some of them future experiments. We human beings grow and change not only as individuals, but as humanity in general. Every single one of us is at home in our culture in some ways and out-of-step in other ways. Why it should make me feel better to be reminded of this, I don’t know, but somehow it’s reassuring.

The stories told in the course of this book range from the inspiring to the horrifying. The horrifying ones are hard to shake off. The destruction of Irish Catholic neighborhoods in 1844 was carried out by gangs of rioting nativists bearing American flags. The desperate attempts of the Irish to claim protection through hopeful displays of that same flag on their doors made no impression on the rioters. In effect, gangs had stolen the flag and made it their own, refusing all right to its use by those they considered outsiders. This same story, once established, is repeated over and over again through the years: The Ku Klux Klan wrapping itself in the flag and refusing its protection to blacks, Jews, Catholics, socialists. The robber barons of the Gilded Age claiming the flag for their candidate and insisting that anyone who refused to carry a flag for McKinley was a flag-hater and un-American. The “Hard Hat” rioters beating up anti-Vietnam War protesters as “communists” while parading under the flags which symbolised support for Nixon and the war.

My own uneasiness about the flag has a lot to do with memories of times when it has been “captured” by some particular group of people and imbued with very specific meanings which pushed me away. When the flag symbolizes support for a particular administration, a particular set of policies, a particular war, then how can it be waved without implying that the one waving it subscribes to those particulars? It’s unreasonable to expect people to identify with a flag as a symbol of belonging when it has been claimed by other people who use that same flag as a symbol of exclusion. Even less reasonable is the accusation that people who don’t love the flag must hate their country, an accusation that was regularly thrown at those who refused to salute a symbol of their own humiliation. I’m disturbed by accounts of huge flag-waving parades being organized to support particular candidates or wars or policies, requiring all employees to show up and march as a sign of patriotism, and implying a threat to the jobs of those who refused.

How can the flag be freed from all the particular groups who are continually trying to capture it? How can it become simply a general symbol for the use of everyone, free of partisan baggage? I have to return to the three snapshots from this book which offer a more hopeful and inclusive demonstration of flag-waving. One is from the Revolution, when American sailors in a British prison began displaying homemade flag substitutes as symbols of their own solidarity with each other and with the ideals they held for the new country they fought for. They had hopes of a future in which democratic and egalitarian principles would prevail, and displays of the flag were expressions of commitment to these principles.

In a similar moment of enlightened hope, the flag of the Union armies during the Civil War gradually changed its symbolism as the war progressed. What had begun as a symbol of a political entity, a government and its armies, became by the end of the war a symbol of a new world, an end of slavery, a promise of liberty. “The flag that the soldiers followed in the last battles of the war … brought emancipation in its wake. It accomplished an unusual feat, fusing the impulse of nationalist patriotism, with its emphasis on Union and belonging, to humanitarian patriotism, with its emphasis on individual liberty.”

The third inspiring moment that stays with me is the memory of the civil rights demonstrators in Jackson, Mississippi in 1963, carrying American flags as they marched through the streets, clinging to those flags as they were dragged off by police, the flags left scattered and trampled in the streets after each demonstration, yet appearing again indomitably at the next one. This was a wonderful story because it offers the hope that it might be possible to reclaim the flag for everyone, not just those who want to own it and define its limits. In this case, although the Klan would have excluded them from the shelter of the flag, the excluded ones themselves seized the flag and said, “It’s our flag, too. You don’t own it.”

Selma March 3

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The book recollects a famous photograph of the Selma-to-Montgomery march, “There was the silhouette of a line of marchers coming over the hill, flags billowing above them … The flag provided a way for patriots to recognize each other across racial and cultural divides…The common ground of patriotism allowed both black and white to see themselves as American.”

If only we could see — not just ourselves — but each other — all of us — as American.