Backs Adorned with Flags (Followup and Changing Ideas)

Last week I wrote a blog, Backs Adorned with Flags, and after some comments, especially from my blog and twitter buddy Nick, I want to followup on some points. This post isn’t particularly organized, as I am still working on some of these thoughts but promised to get his out soon.  

One question I am thinking about relates to possible differences between “metaphoric” and actual displays of the flag.

Actual displays of the United States flag (or of another flag) indicates a conscious choice to show some form of allegiance and group identification. Actual flags suggest priorities for the given person, at least for that historical moment, and relate to his/her hopes and fears and that of his/her society. (Flags really are an odd thing – that one relatively small piece of cloth and its colors and symbols can mean so much.) 

While I am still interested in there being something to the notion of metaphorically wearing a U.S. flag, I am having more doubts. For instance, this would certainly not be appropriate and could even be offensive to those who are targets of the Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy, as termed by bell hooks.

Additionally, as my students and I discussed in various contexts this past week, the United States is not all that different from other counties, especially for those who are “wealthy.”

To suggest that we all have a metaphoric U.S. flag on our shirts might be to assume people have automatic, unquestioned allegiance to the United States and that the United States sets the standard, per se. And that wealth and living are correlated with being a citizen of the United States. And this is certainly not something I would agree with, as readers well know! 

And, too, a growing number of people don’t have access to the wealth that made the United States “great” – and this entire idea is built of misguided notions of the past. 

The metaphor idea roughly came from the perspective that we “don’t see” White Privilege or Male Privilege, until we look for it and train ourselves to see it.

But flags; nationalism and allegiance; and wealth are all three separate, very different issues and not that adaptable to being read metaphorically as I was originally, briefly thinking.  

Additionally, Nick brought up that today the Pride Flag is popular, as well as flags for various organizations and causes. Flags are for sure much more than symbols of nationalism or civil religion.

At this point, I have a few “conclusions” of sorts. 

1. Actual flags, to me, are problematic (and I have thought this for a long time) because they attempt to summarize too much too briefly and are often used without meaningful consideration. They can encourage us vs. them rhetoric and thinking and this causes people to vastly misunderstand the world, present and future. We say the U.S. flag means freedom but don’t embrace that in day-to-day actions as a nation. 

2. People, at times, display allegiances to nations and groups through a variety of symbolic means. Sometimes with actual flags, sometimes metaphorically – by the way they live or what they say; however, these would be all highly individualized. For instance, one person may drive a fancy car to show off and describe themselves as “a proud, hard-working American using God-give rights.” Another person, could drive a fancy car and consider themselves a World Citizen.   

So, in essence, I retract my ideas about people having a metaphoric flag on their back! One of the great things about blogs is the ability to share, discuss, and change ideas. 



Categories: Thoughts and Perspectives

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3 replies

  1. Hi Andrew,

    Thanks for your follow-up post. I enjoyed it. To your first conclusion, I think a major problem with flags (and most non-textual symbols in general) is that many assumptions are made by both a flag’s creator and its wavers. People wave the U.S. flag and assume that the ideas they embed in its cloth are “correct” and that other people wave the flag for the same reasons they do. Barack Obama and Donald Trump (and their supporters) wave the flag, but it would be easy to conclude that in most instances they are not waving it for the same reasons.

    Symbols are charged with meaning, but the “original intent” of the symbol is liable to evolve and change over time, even though those old meanings never go away, which is why thinking about something like a flag within a historical context is so crucial. Untangling these complex meanings is what American Studies exists for. Ha!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sure thing, Nick. Thanks for your comments–even the “hard” ones – it’s how we grow and learn!

      For sure on your comments about assumptions and flags. I regularly can get students to think in new ways when I say, on one level, flags are just a piece of cloth. People don’t understand any kind of semiotics and how it applies to flags and meanings, generally speaking.

      United Statesian 😉 Studies has plenty to keep us busy!!

      Liked by 1 person

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