Flag debate

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(HOST) By now, all the traditional signs of summer have arrived: cookouts, ball games, parades, fireworks – and commentator Vic Henningsen reminds us of one more sign of the season.

(HENNINGSEN) By mid-July, we’ve celebrated Memorial Day, Flag Day, and the Fourth of July, and towns all over the country have lined their streets with American flags, once again provoking a spirited debate over the use of the flag itself.

Although many regard these displays simply as gestures of respect for service and sacrifice, they seem outnumbered by two groups that believe they’re political statements. One celebrates flag displays as a tangible symbol of support for current policy.

The other argues that, for just that reason, towns should not mount such displays. This year’s discussion was enlivened by Congress’s latest effort to authorize a Constitutional amendment banning desecration of the flag.

These arguments get pretty heated and, as I listen, I wonder: at what point did the flag stop being a symbol of our collective community? I recall a picture of protesters confronting national guardsmen during the famous Bread and Roses textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912. Both sides carried American flags. Bitterly opposed, they acknowledged sharing a national symbol.

I was brought up to see the flag as nonpartisan literally as a visible rallying point where all could gather. That is, after all, a fundamental purpose of any flag. My father and the others who taught me this seemed to model that belief. They disagreed with each other politically, but their shared service in World War II led them to honor the symbol without attempting to give it a political affiliation.

But studying history leads me to the reluctant understanding that the flag has often been a divisive symbol, particularly in times of crisis. During nationalist hysteria surrounding American entry into World War I, a mob in St. Louis draped a young German immigrant in an American flag before they lynched him. During the McCarthy period of the 1950’s Americans were encouraged to display the flag as a sign of their anti-Communism. Some who didn’t were harassed and investigated. And, of course, during the Vietnam era, both supporters and opponents of the war seized upon the symbolism of the flag to advance their cause: one side by waving it; the other by burning it. That was when the flag became the almost totally politicized emblem it remains to many Americans today.

The flag should be a symbol of unity, not division. I have a hard time seeing the flag that covers caskets and is handed to the widows and children of those who die in the nation’s service as anything other than a symbol of respect for that service and that sacrifice – certainly not as an endorsement or rejection of a particular policy or political point of view. I find self-serving politicos who flaunt it on their lapels almost as offensive as self-righteous zealots who defile it.

At best, the flag remains a symbol of the liberties Americans share. It stands, among other things, for the freedom we have to disagree vigorously over its meaning and its use.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.

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