Monday, June 14, 2021

The Complicated History and More Complicated Emotional Reactions to Flag Day

Note:  We’ve been here before but slightly updated to account for recent catastrophe and on-going embarrassments.

In case you hadn’t noticed today is officially Flag Day, a demi-holiday easily overlookedIt is celebrated by displaying the American FlagVeterans groups often organize solemn flag disposal ceremonies

No other country on Earth makes quite the fetish of its flag as does the United States.  The word idolatry comes to mind.  At its worst it elevates the symbol—the Flag—over the substance—the democratic values espoused in the Declaration of Independence and protected by the Constitution.  It is an absolute truism that those who wrap themselves most in the Flag—and these days that is not just a figurative term—are the most disingenuous and dangerous.  Witness any performance by the former Resident of the White House and the seditious mobs that laid siege to the Capitol.

A scoundrel hugged the flag.

On the other hand—especially those who served in the Armed Forces or who were raised in a veteran’s household—have been taught to respect the Flag and “the nation for which it stands.”  I still hang the Flag on my house on patriotic holidays and always place my hat over my heart when it passes by in a parade.  It’s just the way I was raised.

Part of the national devotion to the Flag comes from an odd combination of cultural coincidence and calculated political strategy.  Our National Anthem, not officially adopted until 1931 but widely used on patriotic occasions for more than a century prior, may be the only national song about a flag. 

After the Civil War the Grand Army of the Republic used the flag as a victory symbol and as a taunt to defeated rebels.  They heavily promoted the use of the banner where it had not been previously displayed.

Not widely displayed except at military posts, on Navy ships, and on some Federal buildings prior to the Civil War, the Grand Army of the Republic heavily promoted its use after the war in a spirit of triumphalism of the Union over the vanquished South.  For that reason display of the national flag was highly unpopular in the South until World War I.

The flag and the Pledge of Allegiance were used to Americanize immigrants, especially children as in this Jacob Riis photo.

The Pledge of Allegiance was penned by Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister and socialist, for use during celebration the 400th anniversary of the supposed discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus.  Quickly adopted by schools as part of the daily ritual of beginning classes, the Pledge does not swear allegiance to the government—an inclusive tip-of-the-hat to resentful former Rebels—or even to the Constitution, but to a symbol, the Flag.

By the turn of the 20th Century the Flag was being used as a symbol of assimilation for the waves of emigrants swamping our shores—and as a test of their loyalty.  The most popular composers of the era—the March King John Philip Sousa and Broadway’s George M. Cohan made literal flag waving as popular as moon-June-spoon ballads.

During World War I and after the flag was used to boost patriotism and became more closely associated than ever with the armed forces.

During World War I, the Woodrow Wilson administration used flag imagery as part of their very sophisticated domestic propaganda operation designed to rouse support of the war effort and raise Liberty Loans.  After the war, the Flag was used to rally support for suppression of the labor movement, radicalism, Socialism, and Communism said to represent sinister alien ideologies.

Wilson proclaimed the first official Flag Day in 1916.  In 1949, with the country in the grips of yet another Red Scare, Congress made it an official Federal Holiday, although withholding the paid days off for Federal employees standard for other holidays.

June 14 is Flag Day because on this date in 1777 the Continental Congress passed the Flag Act which officially described a new national banner:

Resolved: That the flag of the United States be made of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation.

Betsy Ross almost certainly did not sew the first flag, Washington never viewed it, and the 13 stars in a circle banner may not have ever been actually used during the Revolution.  None of that stopped myth makers.

The new official flag—not, by the way, likely first sewn by Philadelphia seamstress Betsy Ross—was based on the unofficial Grand Union flag used by General George Washington during the Siege of Boston.  That flag had the same thirteen alternating red and white stripes but had the British Union flag in its canton.  Of course, that was before Independence was declared in July of 1776.  It wouldn’t do to keep the reference to the British flag. 

 The Act was vague—it did not describe the arrangement of the stars in the field, how the stars should be shaped, or even how large the field should be.  Local flag makers working from the sketchy description produced many variations with five, six, and even twelve pointed stars; with stars of different sizes; and many variations of arrangement.  Also, the shade of blue used for the field depended largely on what blue cloth the maker might have at hand.

The familiar thirteen stars in a circle was not only not standard, but some historians also doubt if it was used at all during the Revolutionary War.  Others believe that it might have been the flag used at the British surrender at Yorktown.

After Vermont and Kentucky were added to the Union two additional stars and two stripes were added.  It was this flag that was the Star Spangled Banner observed still flying over Ft. McHenry in Baltimore harbor after an all-night British naval bombardment in 1815.  It became apparent that with more new states, adding stripes would quickly become clumsy. In 1818, after five more states were added, Congress fixed the number of stripes at thirteen with an added star for each new state.

But it still did not specifically designate an arrangement for the stars.  During the Civil War flags with all manner of arrangements were used.  It was not until the creation of the 48 star flag in 1912 that a specific arrangement was established.  The current 50 star flag has been in use since July 4, 1960 after the admission of Hawaii to the Union.  This year will mark the 61st anniversary of that flag, which has been in service longer than any previous national banner.

Insurgents laying siege to the Capitol used the flag, but also proximately displayed the Confederate battle flag and the banners of a number of fascist and racist hate groups.

Today the flag is waved by forces on both sides of the great social and political divide even as the nation for which it stands after the perilous on the verge of a second civil war last January.  But many on the left are still chagrined and conflicted about the flag.  Does it represent the on-going lethal threat to which the Black Lives Matter Movement has responded?  To the ongoing expressions of white supremacy and the continued attacks on basic voting rights?  To attempts to degrade women and attack their bodily autonomy?  To the treatment of immigrants and refugees? To continuing militarism and low-grade but bloody war around the world?  Or can the flag be honored as an yet unfulfilled promise?

Both sides of the current American social chasm claim to love their country but have seemingly irreconcilable notions about what America is, what it means, and what it should become.

Rev. William Barber of the Moral Monday marches and the new Poor People's Campaign has used the flag as a symbol for voting rights and economic equality.  Immigrants, refugees and their allies also us the flag as aspirational.

As for me, I will choose hope.  I’ve got my flag today and on the belief that it stands for “Liberty and Justice for All.  What does your flag mean? 

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