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The Flag Fetish

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An article in Sunday’s New York Times reports on conservative hostility to Obama. He doesn’t wear a flag pin, they complain, and he doesn’t put his hand over his heart during the National Anthem.

I remember when Americans weren’t obsessed with outward shows of patriotism. People only flew flags at their homes on Flag Day or the 4th of July. Now every day is Flag Day, and private homes can be hard to distinguish from government offices. I’ve fantasized about knocking on doors and asking for a packet of stamps.

We didn’t fly flags in the past because our country is so large that there’s no question where you are. You don’t have to look for the nearest flag to make sure you haven’t wandered out of Luxembourg into Belgium.

Flag pins are an even newer phenomenon. If a police officer stops you in Kansas or New York City, are you going to check for a flag pin to make sure he’s not a Mountie? Should flag pins be a form of national ID? Maybe we should each wear one with a DNA sample and a thumbprint embedded in it.

You know who used to wear little pins on their clothes? The Commies! I have a flag pin that dates back to the 70s; I used to wear it as a puzzle, to ask people if they could identify it. No one could. It was from the German Democratic Republic. East Germans and Soviets were wearing flag pins long before Americans decided they were necessary signs of patriotism. Perhaps it protected you from the KGB if you were bedecked with tiny metal badges.

Most Americans are not descended from the Pilgrims or the First Families of Virginia. Their ancestors came here more recently and faced discrimination. I’m thinking in part of the Irish who fled the potato famine; they arrived in New York to find signs that read, “No Irish Need Apply.” Now some descendants of these potato-famine Irish (are Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity among them?), and those of other, later immigrants, feel free to attack Senator Obama because his father wasn’t a native-born American (which reminds me of something else—the occasional bumper sticker you see in California which insists “native Californian”).

I don’t need a flag pin or a flag outside my window to know where I’m from. On my mother’s side, my first ancestor came to this country from Holland in 1659, where he married another early Dutch immigrant. [1659!] On my father’s side, my first ancestor came to Philadelphia in 1781. He was a Scot, 19 years old, and he paid off his passage by weaving linen. Then he went west to get land. (I wish he had stayed in Philly, which, thanks to Ben Franklin, had a university and a public library.) All of my ancestors were in this country before 1850, the most recent comers having fled the European revolutions of 1848. But I'm not doubting the patriotism of more recent immigrants, and by the same token, they should not doubt that of Senator Obama. 

Many Republicans consider John McCain's military service the best evidence of patriotism. My male ancestors fought in most of the wars the United States waged. (When they did not, it was because they were too young or too old.) My Dutch ancestors fought for independence in the Revolution. Their descendants fought as Union officers in the Civil War; there is a monument to the brigade of my great-great grandfather and his half-brother at Chickamauga battlefield in Tennessee. (My great-great grandfather died young as a result of his Civil War service, plunging the family into economic distress.) The brothers also fought in the Spanish-American war. Their descendants fought in World War I, and a few are in the military now.

The flag fetish strikes me as a case of Protesting Too Much. If you’re confident in your possession of something, you don’t have to wear it on your sleeve, your gable, your bumper, or your T-shirt. In fact, the latter used to be considered disrespectful, a kind of desecration. Then Ralph Lauren made it into a commodity, and people forgot that wearing a flag stretched across your belly might not be a sign of respect.

Americans live surrounded by other Americans; there’s no need for a show of defiance. We are not like the English and the French, who fought one another for centuries, still have cultural misunderstandings, and can see each other’s countries on a clear day. So why this bravado and insecurity, which, I think, lie beneath gratuitous, context-free displays of patriotic devotion? 

Wearing a flag pin doesn’t make you a patriot any more than wearing a cross makes you a good [i.e., compassionate] Christian.

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Carol V. Hamilton has a Ph.D. in English from Berkeley and teaches at the University of Pittsburgh. She also writes for History News Network (hnn.us) and CommonDreams.org.
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