Published on Tuesday, December 9, 2003 by CommonDreams.org
All The Flags We've Hung
by Edith Friedman
I like to see my neighbor Barbara, a retiree with a son on an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf, heading to the corner of Mohr and Monument with her U.S. flag and her "Peace is Patriotic" sign. A small group of neighbors stood there with signs on Friday afternoons all last winter, and my son and I joined them a few times. Lots of cars honked. Did we stop the war? he asked me a few months later.
A patriot, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, is "one who loves, supports, and defends one's country." The origin is patrios, Greek for "of one's fathers." The flag is the symbol of our country. I don't want one of my own.
What should I say to my shining four-year-old, learning geography at his Montessori preschool, who calls out to me without fail from the back seat every time I drive him anywhere in our new hometown of Pleasant Hill, California: "Mommy, I see the American Flag!" Those uppercase letters ring in his voice just as they ought to, with the open articulation of a loyal child of the American suburbs, where we have recently planted him. He is truly excited. Here is a new treasure of the adult world he has uncovered, has learned to copy with a stencil and paint. Because of our second war on Iraq, Contra Costa Boulevard is festooned with double-hung flags spaced at intervals of approximately forty feet all along its median, at least a mile' s worth of crossed flags, which we pass twice a day, traveling back and forth to preschool.
In addition to those 264 flags on streetlights, we have seen a tremendous number of flags fluttering and fraying on moving vehicles. "Why don't we have one?" Julian wants to know, having seen, for the past eighteen months, that nearly every other car has one, and that it is missing from the radio antenna of our Subaru station wagon.
When he announces yet another sighting of the American Flag I cringe a little over the steering wheel. Flags are not what I want him to notice about our community. I want him to notice the different people who live here, the different ways we live together. I think the flag should, and sometimes does, stand for freedom, independence, self-determination, democracy, tolerance, safety, and love of country. I think it should not, and sometimes does, stand for fear of foreigners, power misused, invasion, oppression, condescension, and conspicuous consumption. There aren't a lot of bumper stickers or window signs here in the suburbs; in that silence, the slogans accompanying flags on various cars, trucks, and storefronts around town clang in my mind. I don't read them aloud to Julian. United We Stand. These Colors Don't Run. Fear This. Piss On Bin Laden. America: Open for Business. Born In The U.S.A.
I noticed "Born In The USA" next to a flag decal on the rear window of a large white Ford pickup stopped in front of me on North Main. It was a drizzly gray afternoon and I had a car full of kids riding home from daycare. The Bruce Springsteen song "I'm On Fire" was playing on KFOG, and I felt vaguely warmed to see a fellow traveler in front of me; but before the light changed I realized that the truck driver was unlikely to be referencing the spirit of that other Springsteen song, a Vietnam vet's plain tale of how the United States betrayed its own. "Down in the shadow of the penitentiary/Out by the fires of the refinery /I'm ten years burning down the road/ I got nowhere to run I got nowhere to go/I was born in the USA" At home that night I told my partner, Marcel, about my moment of false connection; we chuckled.
But "Born In The USA" stayed with me. A claim of birthright. A gauntlet thrown down. An implied test of loyalty: easy to pass, easy to fail. As it happens I was not born in the United States. My American mother was studying in France that year, so I was born in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a quiet suburb of Paris containing the American Hospital. My American father was told to register me at the U.S. Embassy to ensure my citizenship, and he did so promptly. Three weeks later we took the boat home to New York. I'd probably get a free pass for the Born In The USA test.
Marcel was born in Berlin. The son of a Polish Jewish mother, he was naturalized at age eighteen after his parents emigrated to Nashville. Given those eighteen years of citizenship elsewhere, he might not get the free pass. Maybe there would be questions about his personal beliefs, formed in the shadow of Eastern European Communism at an impressionable age. Maybe his answers would be wrong. He believes in freedom of speech and the right to protest. He doesn't want to put a flag on our car.
Sikander Zaidi would fail the Born In The USA test, but only by accident of birth. The proprietor of a new copy shop on Contra Costa Boulevard, he consented to tell me about his flag, a small desktop model with a round black base. Mr. Zaidi said, "I have lived in America many years, and America has been very good to me. That is why I have this flag. In fact, I am going to get a great big one. It will go across the side wall of the store, and I will have samples for customers to see of things that can be made with flags, such as calendars." We agreed that flags are very popular. Especially the last two years, I added. "Of course, of course," said Mr. Zaidi. "And that is why I have the American flag. I am with the Americans." And I didn't mind his current or his contemplated flag. This is America. He is open for business.
Am I not with the Americans?
I grew up in a flagless home. "Not quite flagless," my father reminded me recently. I remembered the metal clip, empty, on the house front next to my bedroom window. "When Reagan sent troops to Grenada, your brother hung the flag from it. Upside down. A man came to the front door and pointed it out to me. Not one of the neighbors, someone I didn't know."
"What did you say?" I asked.
"I said I thought it was a call of distress. I told him that my son felt strongly that the invasion was a mistake."
"And what did he say?"
"He understood, and he went away," said my father. I am always probing for the hardened core of conflict between good and bad, smart and dumb, left and right, in the stories my father tells. They are never that simple. My father is a man who loves words and uses them wisely. His listeners become people who think.
I think the flag as flown so recently and plentifully may indicate a shortcut, history as the crow flies. A straight shot from George Washington and the American Revolution to George Bush and the War on Terrorism. No arduous detours through the prickly thickets of broken treaties, World War II internment camps, Vietnam, COINTELPRO, institutional racism, Iran/Contra, failing public schools, no actual evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. I worry that we haven't learned from history as we should have done. I worry that we are acquiring still more of that history we will not learn from, and will therefore repeat.
Julian is at the age of blatant want unmitigated by reflection, and he wants flags. I make him one out of green cloth using scotch tape and a chopstick, though I know he would prefer an American Flag. He is nice about it. I find a web site with flags of every country, with buttons you can click to hear the appropriate anthem played on what sounds like an electronic accordion. He spends hours at the computer copying these flags with his crayons and felt-tip pens. His aunts bring him a green zippered vinyl coin purse from Rio de Janeiro with the Brazilian flag on it. He carries it everywhere. At the kids' art studio he paints flags he tells me are flags of his mind, not from any country. As fall advances, he moves on. Now he wants die-cast metal airplanes, velociraptors and a goldfish. I am relieved.
But I know I am employing only the arts of distraction. Sooner or later I will have to tell my son, born in the USA, about the flag. I want him to be of his fathers, and of his mothers too. I still don't know what I should say.
Edith Friedman lives and writes in Pleasant Hill, California. She has two sons.