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What Flags Mean

We should ask ourselves what is represented by the symbols we so proudly hail.

In the rural Midwest where I live, the sight of an American flag flapping gently in the breeze on Memorial Day can appear sublime, giving rise to transcendent and, I daresay, even quasi-religious feelings. While I do not exactly share these emotions, I think I can just about inhabit the mental space of those who do, especially older Americans of my acquaintance, including one who called me just after the holiday to complain about a defacement of what he referred to with absolute sincerity as “this beautiful symbol of our country.”

What my friend objected to specifically was a neighbor who was flying a flag (if that is the right word for the emblem, almost certainly of Chinese manufacture, which I had noticed before myself) with a hoist side emblazoned with the familiar canton of blue with white stars and field of alternating red and white stripes, but with the fly given over to the Stars and Bars.

I leave certain questions occasioned by the appearance of this chimera (how does one go about folding it, for example?) to vexillologists, but needless to say the device is in bad taste. (It is also, in deepest blue Union Country, where every park has its monument to the local Civil War dead—those brave new men of the frontier who gave their lives not in defense of the unthreatened soil but in support of the ideals that would be embodied in the Gettysburg Address—and every proud little town has its Grant and Lincoln and Sherman and Douglas Streets, incomprehensible as a symbol of anything except racial hatred or some even more deep-seated antinomianism.) It should come as no surprise to anyone who has spent time with culturally conservative Midwesterners of a certain age to learn that the perceived offense was so grave that the distressed gentleman who telephoned me wished to involve the sheriff’s department, citing some mid-century statute which he believed prohibited the display. I advised him to leave it alone and consider having a conversation with the neighbor, which, oddly enough, is the advice he might have given me if I had come to him about virtually any other dispute.

I share this anecdote because it helps to illustrate a question I have found myself asking for years now: What, exactly, does the American flag stand for, and what (or who) is on the receiving end of homage when we regard it with the solemn awe enjoined by my millions of my fellow citizens, my friend among them, and evidently qualified by my friend’s neighbor with the addendum of another symbol?

Nearly 20 years ago, as a teenager who refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance when its recitation in public schools became commonplace again during the Bush administration, I considered deference to the flag a de facto endorsement of the follies of our leaders. (Does anyone else remember when Barack Obama of all people made this point with great cogency in 2007?) Since then, my reasons for remaining seated have multiplied, and I have also taken to kneeling on the rare occasions when I find the National Anthem being played, including in my own living room during broadcasts of athletic events. While it would be absurd to suggest that a willful contrarian streak in my own personality does not contribute to this decision (my own father felt the same way about yellow ribbon stickers circa 2004), I like to think that even readers inclined to disagree will understand why I refuse to pledge unqualified allegiance to any nation that annually permits the slaughter of some 600,000 infants.

Some might suggest that I am wrong to identify the abortion genocide with the flag, which (they will argue) transcends the enormities of the last half century every bit as much as it does the legacy of chattel slavery and the slaughter of American Indians and our war crimes in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that, if nothing else, I should certainly be willing to recognize in it a monument to our esteemed war dead and to those serving us in uniform now. On this question I am inclined to defer to the armed forces themselves, which as I write this are debating whether to reverse an order made by the previous administration barring the display of any flags save Old Glory at American military bases. It seems very likely that in the months to come the so-called “pride” flag (with its curious appropriation of what was once a symbol of God’s omnibenevolence even in the face of man’s abject wickedness) will fly under the same emblem before which I refuse to stand.

If the Pentagon itself decrees that the Paphian values of the rainbow flag are synonymous with those of the one under which they serve, who am I to disagree? If nothing else, it is a good reminder that beneath all the alternating pomp and cloying sentimentality attendant upon any mention of “our brave men and women in uniform” is the sordid reality of another federal agency run by feckless Ivy League bureaucrats, whose literacy beyond the confines of Microsoft PowerPoint is very much an open question. Their worldviews are exactly the same as those of their colleagues at any NGO, corporation, or university. Half a century ago we bombed Cambodia in hope of containing Soviet tyranny; now we allow Yemeni children to be murdered in the name of combatting cissexism. As Tammy Duckworth, herself an honored veteran, has assured the American people, LGBTQ pride has “made us a more effective fighting force.”

The acquiescence of the military industrial complex with all of this is unsurprising. But it should give us pause. When we make sweeping statements about the flag and the “American values” it represents, we no longer mean the old latitudinarian civic Protestantism of the 19th and 20th centuries, nor even what the late Justice Kennedy called “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life,” but the quasi-revealed dogma of woke religion. Its adherents have rederived the old Aristotelian conception of freedom as the absence of impediments to one’s pursuit of the good.

Their definition of the good is the freedom the flag stands for.

Matthew Walther is editor of The Lamp magazine and a contributing editor at The American Conservative.

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