Fetishizing the Flag

An article in Sunday's New York Times reports on conservative hostility to Obama. He doesn't wear a flag pin, they complain, and he doesn't put his hand over his heart during the National Anthem. In Monday's Times, William Kristol added insult to injury with a hyperbolic ad-hominem attack on Obama, calling him "grandiose" and accusing him of "moral vanity."

I remember when Americans weren't obsessed with outward shows of patriotism. People only flew flags at their homes on Flag Day or the 4th of July. Now every day is Flag Day, and private homes can be hard to distinguish from government offices. I've fantasized knocking on doors and asking for a packet of stamps.

We didn't fly flags in the past because our country is so large that there's no question where you are. You don't have to check out the nearest flag to make sure you haven't wandered out of Luxembourg into Belgium.

Flag pins and patches are an even newer phenomenon, dating back to 9/11. If two police officers stop you in Kansas or New York City, are you going to look for a flag to make sure they're not Mounties? Should flag pins really be a form of national ID? Maybe we should each wear one with a DNA sample and a thumbprint embedded in it.

You know who used to wear little patriotic pins on their clothes? The Commies. I have a flag pin that dates back to the 80s; I sometimes wear it as a puzzle, to ask people if they can identify it. It's the flag of the German Democratic Republic. East Germans and Soviets were wearing flag pins long before Americans decided they were necessary signs of patriotism. Perhaps if you were bedecked with tiny metal badges, it protected you from the KGB.

Most Americans are not descended from the Pilgrims or the First Families of Virginia. Their ancestors came here more recently and faced discrimination. I'm thinking in part of the Irish who fled the potato famine; they arrived in New York to find signs that read, "No Irish Need Apply." Now some descendants of these potato-famine Irish (Bill O'Reilly? Sean Hannity?) and those of other, later immigrants, feel free to attack Senator Obama, because his father wasn't an American citizen.

The flag fetish strikes me as a case of Protesting Too Much. If you're confident in your possession of something, you don't have to wear it on your sleeve, your gable, your bumper, or your T-shirt. In fact, the latter used to be considered disrespectful, a kind of desecration.

Americans live surrounded by other Americans; there's no need for a show of defiance. We're not like the English and the French, who fought one another for centuries, still have cultural misunderstandings, and can see each other's countries on a clear day. So why this bravado, even insecurity, which I think must lie beneath gratuitious, context-free displays of patriotic devotion?

Wearing a flag pin doesn't make you a patriot any more than wearing a cross makes you a good [i.e., compassionate] Christian.

Carol V. Hamilton has a Ph.D. from Berkeley. Her articles and poems have been published in Oxford German Studies (England), the Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies, C-Theory.net (Canada), The Paris Review, The North American Review, and many other literary and scholarly journals. She has also written for the San Francisco Chronicle, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and a number of alternative papers.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.