(Please be sure and also read Backs Adorned with Flags (Followup and Changing Ideas) as my ideas have greatly shifted from those in this post.)
I’m not a fan of public (or private) displays of flags. Flags privilege modern national states (see, “6 Flags Over Texas”: History, Rhetoric, and Deleting the Past, for example), encourage ethnocentrism and us vs. them rhetoric, and discourage critical thinking (when has anyone ever explained why we have flags everywhere?): They promote civil religions.
I forget the exact surrounding conversation in which the comment arose but one of my students in Mexican American History I recently commented something like that “it’s not like they all go around with a United States flag on their backs all the time” when we discussed the student who recently waved a Mexican flag at her graduation.
I thought about it a minute and added, “Given the culture and wealth in the United States and all of our expensive cars and so on, it is almost as if we all, always metaphorically have a United States flag on our back.”
This conversation has stuck with me. Flags, of course, only have the meanings we subjectively attach to them. A flag itself is at first only cloth with patterns and colors. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion discusses how typically speaking only politically conservative individuals display flags and how for politically liberal individuals, flags can be very problematic.
Why do people feel the need to overtly display any flag? What does it mean that people display flags on schools and other government buildings and on their shirts? What does it mean that we “really care” what size flag pin politicians wear? What do such displays communicate that would not otherwise be communicated?? Such questions are important.
Going back to my thought: What does it mean that most of us metaphorically always display the U.S. flag on our back? Possibilities are numerous. The U.S. flag symbolizes different things to different groups but all relate to wealth, privilege, luxury, and opportunity. We often forget that the U.S. has a tremendously large homeless population (as does the world). We often forget too that minorities–be it because of his/her sex, race, gender expression, sexuality, etc.–often see the United States and its patriotism as insulting and hypocritical. For us the US flag–actual or metaphorical–serves as a reminder that the United States is not a country that simply follows its word and embraces freedom and equality, for example.
So, people symbolically wear the U.S. flag, perhaps, when they remain blind to their privileges and/or do nothing to promote activism, justice, and in bell hook’s words, “education as the practice of freedom.”
They symbolically wear the U.S. flag, perhaps, when they show off their wealth and do nothing to help others.
They symbolically wear the U.S. flag, perhaps, when they blindly promote “we’re-living-in-the-best-nation-ever” rhetoric.
They symbolically wear the U.S. flag, perhaps, when they forget we’re all on this pale blue dot together.