Thursday, July 4, 2013

Stars and Stripes

It's the Fourth of July and the flag is flying from my front porch again. I put it out there on national holidays, unless it slips my mind, and I try to remember to bring it in at night or when it rains. I like seeing it out there. I like the fact that the flags come out on the Fourth of July, to add to the handful of homes on our block where the flag is always flying, year round. They don't come out on every house, of course; some people, most in fact, don't participate. And that's OK. I have no axe to grind about it; I just like putting it out there.

I'm not entirely sure why. When I was a kid, my father never hung a flag from our porch. He was a World War Two veteran, but he never made a fuss about patriotism. I don't recall ever discussing it with him. If he had any, his was a quiet and reflective kind of patriotism. And that's probably the best kind. Ostentatious patriotism is no better than ostentatious anything else.

And then I went off to college and came of age in a time when patriotism was devalued and unfashionable, and it would never have occurred to me to put out a flag on the Fourth of July. That was for the silent majority types, the hard hats and the red-baiters and the rednecks. A famous photograph of an appalling incident, with a white protester stabbing at a black man with an American flag on a staff, cemented the idea in many people's minds that waving the flag was equivalent to benighted, reactionary thinking. Intellectuals and sophisticates like me sneered at such things.

And then some years later, when I had a house and a couple of young children, my grade-school age son asked me why we didn't get a flag to put out on the porch on holidays. And I went out and got one. I didn't really think about it much; I just felt like doing it. I was over feeling superior to the hard hats and the rednecks and the silent majority, and damn it, the flag looked good out there fluttering in the breeze.

My politics had moderated over the years, of course, like a lot of people's, but it wasn't really about politics. When I tried to put my finger on it, the best I could do was this: Putting the flag out on my front porch is an invitation to anybody passing by to consider me part of the family, an invitation to acknowledge kinship and shared interests. That's what it boils down to; a healthy patriotism is akin to a recognition of family ties. You don't approve of everything your ne'er-do-well brother does, but you stick up for him in a fight. You roll your eyes when Grandpa launches into one of his rants, but you help him up the stairs.

Patriotism doesn't mean mindlessly signing off on anything the government says we should do; it might even mean opposing a disastrous initiative like an ill-advised foreign war. Patriotism doesn't mean contempt for other nations; it concedes the right of all people to value their family ties. If patriotism is a virtue, it's a quiet virtue. And frankly, patriotism has to be a few places below the top of our value system; things like respect for the truth and striving to define and achieve justice have to rank higher. If you don't like the word patriotism, call it something else. Call it neighborliness and extend the concept to this whole continent-sized neighborhood we live in.

We need things to unite us in this huge, unruly, fractious country of ours. We are polarized and divided by genuine differences of interest and differing views of justice and the right path to take. We're never going to be all on the same page. But we have the great advantage that our nation was founded on a set of ideas rather than an ethnicity. That's what the flag represents: those ideas. The founders gave a great deal of thought to how a fractious population can best organize its communal affairs. They may not have gotten everything right; ideas may need revision as society evolves. But they gave it a pretty good shot, and that's what I'm celebrating when I put out the flag.

I have friends who are baffled by it; they don't get it. The political left has conceded the flag to the political right, just as the political right has conceded the human rights organizations to the left. Liberals don't fly the flag; conservatives don't join the ACLU. That's too bad; there's no philosophical reason why left and right couldn't agree on both human rights and the virtues of a quiet patriotism.

So if you go by my house and see the flag, don't make assumptions about my politics. All I'm doing is inviting you to join me in being glad that we live in what is still, for all its faults, the most powerful and most promising democracy on earth.

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