On patriotism and sorrow: a personal history of the flag

You will seldom read about sports here, but Roger Goodell’s statement on national anthem policy today provokes many thoughts about patriotism and how the ties that bind us can also divide us.

When I was ten years old God got mixed into the business both of patriotism and daily household purchases. This is the year (1954) that the words “under God” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance, not without controversy. I remember stumbling over the word change every morning after Congress passed the Joint Resolution that mandated this change to the Flag Code. Two years later Congress passed another Joint Resolution stipulating that the words “in God we trust” must appear on all U.S. currency. 

These changes mixed strangely with warm feelings of standing with the multitudes at Cleveland Municipal Stadium to sing the National Anthem on pleasant summer evenings, followed by the pronouncement: “Play ball.” And even more strangely with the grainy apoplectic faces of Senator Joseph McCarthy and company: McCarthy, chairman of the Senate Government Operations Committee, conducted hearings into his charges that the U.S. Army was “soft on communism.” This is among my earliest memories of television. Also 1954.

Flags stood at the front of the classroom in elementary school, and flew from poles in public places. We were taught that Betsy Ross was a seamstress who “made” the first American flag. This may be an apocryphal story first recorded by her grandson. We were not taught that as an apprentice to an upholsterer she also made and repaired curtains, bedcovers, tablecloths, rugs, umbrellas and Venetian blinds.

And then – in 1954! – President Eisenhower standardized the dates and time periods when the flag was to be flown at half staff:  Memorial Day, Peace Officers Day, upon the death of a president or former president (for 30 days), upon the death of a vice president, Supreme Court chief justice/retired chief justice, or speaker of the House of Representatives (10 days.)

My first memory of the flag at half-staff is following the assassination of President Kennedy – nineteen years after Eisenhower’s proclamation. The period of mourning was one of extraordinary national unity.

 

All in all my relationship with the flag was respectful, if perfunctory and transactional. 

So I was more bemused than triumphant when astronauts Aldrin and Armstrong planted the flag on the moon in 1969. More bemused than horrified by flag-burnings during Vietnam War protests.

It was President Nixon who adopted the flag as a lapel pin. He was also the first President to end a public speech with the words “God bless America and God bless each and every one of you.” (The speech was an attempt to exert damage control over the escalating Watergate scandal.)  And flag pins were not uncommon during the First Gulf War (1990-91).

But it was after 9/11 that President George W. Bush – and his staff – and some news anchors, began not so much wearing as displaying them.

 

This is when I started to feel queasy. 

As if something that was a standard fixture in my life was being appropriated to stand in for something that I did not stand for at all: the display of patriotism. As if the terrible assault on our civilian life required the display of a symbol for us to rally around. I’m not talking about fireworks displays or parades on Independence Day. Or the display of respect when a folded flag is handed to the family of a fallen military member. 

What I mean is the display of the flag as a badge of chosen-ness, of righteousness or self-righteousness, the display of the flag as if it is a political brand. Or a team brand. This is where Goodell’s statement of the day comes in:

It was unfortunate that on-field protests created a false perception among many that thousands of NFL players were unpatriotic. This is not and was never the case.

This season, all league and team personnel shall stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem. Personnel who choose not to stand for the anthem may stay in the locker room until after the anthem has been performed.

And then there’s the mixing up of patriotism and God. The God I believe in is not the God of American currency, a deity of patriotism, or a deity who favors either a set of political or religious beliefs or any tribe or nation.

 

The flag for me has become real. It has become a sorrow.

Not a symbol of sorrow but a sorrow in itself. Because it is flown at half-staff with such frequency that I often have to inquire of people  – or Google – just who is being mourned and for what reason.

And because in 2018 the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag does not confound a 10-year-old trying to remember to add two new words to her daily recitation, but inspires a six-year-old to decide, all on his own, to take the knee. And because in 2018 a team member can be relegated to the locker room for “bad” behavior (choosing not to stand for the national anthem) the way I could be sent to the coat-room at the back of my classroom in 1954 for behaving out of order.

 

So I heartfully propose that we decommission the flag, the pledge, and the anthem all three as badges of anything. 

Let us rid all three of sanctimony. Instead let us return them to their essential nature, a true sanctity. Let us consider the values they inspire us to embody, in support of the indivisible Union to which we continue to aspire. Humility shoulder to shoulder with pride. From the depths of our humanity.

I can think of no better antidote to

the American flag as sorrow.

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Showing 4 comments
  • Kim
    Reply

    Sara, thanks for this beautifully written and thoughtful post. I love the way you weaved the history into your own personal experience. It will be interesting to see how the players respond.

  • Sara Eisenberg
    Sara Eisenberg
    Reply

    Thanks, Kim, that means a lot coming from you. And yes, all the players: the players on the field, the “owners,” the advertisers, the fans..how they respond.

  • Deborah Green
    Reply

    Sara, This is a beautifully expressed and powerful blog post. Yes! – humility shoulder to shoulder with pride. Thank you. Deb

    • Sara
      Reply

      Thanks, Deb – this is the potential once we shed our preconceived ideas of one another and the ones we use to drain the life out of the beautiful human-created features of our culture.

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