AFTER THE Sept. 11 attacks, I put a small American flag in my front window. Some of my most liberal friends were appalled. The flag conjured up visions of jingoistic, Fox-watching rednecks, they said. Displaying it tagged me as a guns, guts, and God kind of gal, a vengeful Rambo in heels. At the very least, it meant that I was for bombing the daylights out of Afghanistan.
No, I protested. The flag is merely a symbol. It can celebrate any aspect of America we choose: freedom of speech, community, separation of church and state. Or just solidarity with the fallen. What better time to take back the flag, I said -- to make it stand for more progressive values?
After a while, it seemed my hoped-for shared custody of the flag wasn't going to take. Like liberals who proclaim their superior eco-politics by slapping recycle stickers on their low-emission cars, the flag just seemed to be a permanent fixture of the Hummer and pickup truck crowd.
The struggle to control the symbols of patriotism reappeared at the Democratic National Convention, awash in a sea of military metaphors. John Kerry criticized people who "wrap themselves in the flag" but question the patriotism of anyone who protests the status quo. "That is not a challenge to patriotism," he said. "It is the heart and soul of patriotism." It was one of the best applause lines he stepped on all night.
So Democrats showed they too could produce full-throated chauvinism. I don't know how it looked on TV, but to me it seemed artificial, as contrived as the multicultural coalitions the Republicans trot out at their conventions every four years to show they're the party of inclusion.
The unseemly tug of war over the flag is just another sorry example of how polarized we have become in this nation. We need a new definition of patriotism to cut across the partisan divide. And rather than continue to parry with symbols, the new American patriots could make an important statement with a program of substance: comprehensive, possibly even mandatory, national service.
Despite a doubling of applications right after Sept. 11, the Peace Corps is at its lowest enrollment since Kennedy was president. AmeriCorps, the national volunteer program, has to beg for funds every year to a skeptical Congress. The military is prosecuting an unpopular war, and even a draft is no guarantee that everyone participates, as any Vietnam-era Ivy Leaguer worth his urine sample can attest.
But a universal domestic service program, one in which youth of all backgrounds take part, has appeal across the board. It sings both to the spirit of volunteerism behind the conservative "thousand points of light" and to the communitarianism of the liberal claim that "it takes a village." As Alan Khazei, co-founder of City Year, puts it: "Nobody owns this, and nobody should."
At a recent City Year convention, David Gergen, presidential aide to both Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, said the country's increasing polarization coincides with the passing of the World War II generation. With 10 million Americans sharing that rite of passage, he said, there was a strong common bond that has been lost to the baby boomers.
Even better than the military, a truly national service corps could seek parity in gender and sexual orientation. It would erase the most insidious division of all in the country today: not ideology, but class.
And imagine how much could get done. Just for starters, there are 3 million schoolrooms in the United States. Putting a teacher's aide or mentors in every one would be a boon, especially in poor rural areas. Affordable housing could be constructed. The frail elderly could be kept out of nursing homes. As with the AmeriCorps model, the volunteers would be supplements, not replacements, for existing workers.
Both Kerry and President Bush offer lip service to the idea. Kerry would provide free four-year tuition to public colleges and universities in exchange for two years of volunteer work. The president's "Call to service" has a goal of every American donating two years or 4,000 hours over a lifetime. But neither does enough to achieve the critical mass needed to inculcate a shared experience across red and blue America.
Making volunteerism mandatory is an oxymoron, of course, which makes Khazei wary. But, he noted, the country didn't get serious about funding education until attendance in public school became mandatory. At a minimum there ought to be a debate.
Here's the real test: I devoutly hope my stepson is never called up for a military draft. But if he were conscripted into national service? I'd show the flag for that.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.