Backs Adorned with Flags

(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. 

Thoughts? 

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Categories: Thoughts and Perspectives

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7 replies

  1. Id like to hear more of what you think of the “we’re-living-in-the-best-nation-ever” rhetoric. How is that harmful thought for us Americans to have?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Don’t ask me.

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  3. Hi Andrew,

    I enjoyed this thought-provoking post, but I have to push back a bit. I think you’re dealing in absolutes and generalizations that would not be compatible with the realities of flag waving if taken to their logical extreme.

    First of all, while flags are often used within the context of the nation-state, there are certainly more uses for flags besides that. Political movements calling for enhanced civil rights or criticizing the state (the LGBTQ rights rainbow flag, for example), sports teams, and private businesses/corporations all use flags as symbols as well. Secondly, civil religion conveys itself through many mediums, include statues, speeches, and commemorative ceremonies. Removing flags from public and private spaces would do little to decrease expressions of civil religion. If anything, it would only lead to other artifacts and symbols being re-appropriated to support the nation-state.

    Finally, I think this idea of “only politically conservative individuals display flags and how for politically liberal individuals, flags can be very problematic” is simply wrong. Ditto to the idea that flag waving discourages critical thinking (where’s the evidence for that?). Maybe conservative-leaning-people are more likely to share American flag memes online or wave a flag on the front of their house, but the flag–as you concede in suggesting that a flag’s meaning is subjective–has been used to justify all sorts of political platforms, from the Communist party USA to the Tea Party. It’s waved at rallies against Obamacare and at rallies calling for St. Louisians to welcome Syrian refugees into the country (see here: http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/sep/14/st-louis-missouri-syrian-refugees). The U.S. flag is most certainly not the exclusive purview of conservatives.

    The U.S. flag, just like our history, is troubling and complex. We should always interrogate the ways the flag is symbolized and used by members of society, but I think your definition of its usage in this essay is much too rigid.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your thoughts and criticisms, Nick. Let me think about your thoughts a bit more. I’ll probably do a followup blog in a couple of days. Wed, Thur, and Fri are my really long, crazy teaching days (5 am to late afternoon). I’ll for sure comment here again. Thanks for helping me see the full picture here!

      Liked by 1 person

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