Born on the 4th of July

04 Jul 2003
July 4, 2003

Our 4th of July Flag

As I turned onto my street yesterday after work I immediately noticed a small American flag had been planted in front of every house on our block. Independence Day was just a day away and someone had decided this would be a good way to display our patriotism. The hair on the back of my neck stood at attention.

Last weekend, when I went to help my mother-in-law at her garage sale I noticed an identical landscape in her neighborhood. I had never seen this before. When I questioned who had put the flags there she replied “I think a real estate agent but I’m not sure. I wasn’t home when it happened. But I kind of like it.”

I started to get angry. Flag waving has become a trigger for narrow-minded sloganeering in this country. From the Vietnam era’s “America: Love it or Leave it” to the Right’s latest redirect of anyone who questioned the Administration’s Iraqi incursion, people can become very passionate about opposition to popularly held beliefs. Our flag has become an unwitting accomplice in this process.

I had a hard time controlling my immediate desire to take on anyone who would listen to my pedagogical lecture. This wasn’t my neighborhood and my mother-in-law wasn’t upset. So I wisely decided against engaging her and her friends in between sales of their knickknacks.

Three days later I walked into my own home and asked my wife what she knew of our new lawn ornament. She, too, knew nothing. It was there when she got home along with a jar of apple butter sitting pretty on our front porch. The label identified the gift giver as “Jo Ann” from a local real estate company. She was nice enough to include her photo and phone numbers. This morning I decided to give her a call.

I was particularly nervous. Not one to shy away from animated discourse I wanted to keep in check my own knee-jerk reaction to the narrowing of American political debate. I took a deep breath and wished for the best. Jo Ann answered her phone.

I introduced myself and asked if she had been the one to place the flag in our front yard. “Yes,” she admitted proudly. “That was me.” I began by asking her if she had considered asking homeowners if she could place the flag on our lawns. The notion of land ownership is also deeply imbedded in the American psyche. We fought a civil war over rules of ownership. I didn’t appreciate her assumption I would be pleased with the gift she left in front of my house. She told me it would have been difficult to ask each homeowner as she had placed over 700 flags throughout the area. I suggested this might be a reason to rethink her act of generosity.

In the past, I have written about the social pressures inherent in American patriotism. I’ve even tried to recontextualize the meaning of our national symbol. So I will only state that my love for my country is very profound, personal, and complicated, akin to my religious and spiritual beliefs. While I enjoy discussion, I was reticent to talk about these ideas with the stranger whose boundaries were so different from my own. I thought for a long time before finally deciding to dial her number.

I was incensed. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to control my anger when I really needed to convey these beliefs and link them to the line she’d crossed. Liberals, too, think deeply about freedom, sacrifice, and patriotism. I could not ignore her act.

“I’d be glad to remove the flag. Just give me your address.” “No, I can do that myself if I want.” Did I want to? What would my neighbors think? How would it look if ours was the only house on the block with no flag? I drove down the street to check. Was this really about the flag or was it about someone telling me how I should think about and use it? I told her I thought she’d meant well but the flag as a symbol had been so misused over the years it had driven my patriotism underground.

I chose my words and the boundaries of this conversation carefully. The word fascist kept ringing in my head as I envisioned my neighbors looking askance at us as they passed our house. By mid call I was exhausted as I fought to keep a balanced attitude, one that might yield the most understanding. “You’re the only person who has called me.” I wasn’t surprised. Were any of my neighbors feeling the same way? How could I find out without becoming a community pariah just by asking? I felt perilously close to numerous slippery slopes.

As we closed, she said she understood. I had not browbeaten her as my insides had initially demanded. I took a deep breath and paused. “But what did you think of the apple butter?” she continued. “Well, to be honest, we’re going to throw it away, unopened. I would never serve my family something that was given to me by a stranger. In the last couple of years we’ve had to deal with anthrax and snipers. Life is no longer the way it was when you and I were growing up. It’s an unfortunate truth. I am sorry.” I found it hard to believe anyone who had lived through all of that could be so clueless. Yet she listened quietly as I spoke. My heart continued to pound.

It was a chance meeting, not between two entrenched ideologues spinning the truth from one end of the spectrum to the other. Just between two Americans trying to do the right thing: something each really believed in.

Related Links:
Wave our Flag by Jim Hightower
My Country: The World by Howard Zinn

7 replies
  1. George Brett says:

    In the past couple of years I have come to equate USA’s passion with the flag as a well intentioned but misguided superstition based on national pride. Sorry, but there it is. So, these days I think of all the garlic that was hung on doors, placed all over, worn as ornament on persons during the Black Plague. My understanding is that these people believed garlic would keep the deadly plague at bay. Today I see well intentioned americans plastering their beloved symbol as neck ties, shirts, dresses, sweaters, pants, mangetic gizmos for cars, decals for windows, and of course fabric flags for all purposes everywhere.
    The flag of USA has become the modern garlic. It hopes to keep terrorism and all those ugly foreign things away from us. I find it truly sad.
    A couple weeks ago I had the opportunity to speak with Maj Gen Pat Brady who is driving yet another piece of legislation about burning the flag. I tried to get him to realize that what we need is education about how to really care for this supposedly important symbol. In Boy Scouts (1960’s) we called it Flag Etiqutte. I told him how I have seen abused, dirty, and torn flags on the back of pickup trucks or hanging from trees in front yards all in the name of patriotism. These flags should be properly disposed of (burned or buried) and replaced. He didn’t hear, maybe he couldn’t hear, because he is so focused on those ungrateful protestors.
    Last but not least my opinion of your supposed benefactor. 700 flags and applebutter…. sounds like a commercial plug to me. Yup industry is really good about spreading garlic around. But, in closing it reminds me of a quote I saw a little while ago about the close relationship of corporations (business) government. I fear we are closer to it than we may think.
    “Fascism should more properly be called corporatism, since it is the merger of state and corporate power.” — Benito Mussolini. (source: http://commondreams.org/views02/1124-03.htm)

  2. Donna says:

    I completely agree with George. This wasn’t so much an act of patriotism as an opportunity for advertising. She was riding on this recent train of fear-driven patriotism solely for the purpose of listing and selling houses in the future.
    And I just got the connotation of apple butter. Oh please.
    It’s one world.

  3. John Coalson says:

    “I started to get angry.”
    “I was particularly nervous.”
    “I was incensed.”
    “I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to control my anger…”
    “I could not ignore her act.”
    Hmm… all these things happened before you even got on the phone with her, huh? What’d she do again? Throw a brick through your window? Oh, no! Worse! She placed a small replica of our great nations flag in your lawn! And *gasp* on the 4th of July! Dear God, she must be insane!
    Seriously though, maybe that’s why Liberals seldom make any sense… too much emotion prior to discourse and not enough thinking.
    Have you ever heard that saying: “If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.”?
    Picture yourself in there: If he talks like he doesn’t like the flag and acts like he doesn’t like the flag, he probably doesn’t like the flag.
    I don’t think you like our nations flag. Well…?
    In any case, I’ve placed your site on my favs list. I enjoy honesty and you’re, no doubt, honest about your feelings. I look forward to reading more from you.
    Good day!

  4. Jeff says:

    John, I’m glad you enjoy my honesty. So let me be honest with you. I love what the flag should stand for and what it was originally made to stand for.
    The flag, any flag or symbol is meaningless unless one focuses on the acts that it symbolizes and not the symbol itself.
    I appreciate the acts of bravery, sacrifice, and giving that thousands of people have offered to make this country a place I like to live. Our flag is a symbol of those acts to me.
    But I take exception to those who feel it is their right to narrowly define just what that flag should represent. And I take an even greater exception to someone telling me just what it should mean and how I should use it.
    In the last few years it has been used as a banner for military might. I attended the “Victory Parade” here in Washington after the first Gulf War where I heard chants of “We’re Number One! We’re Number One!”
    I reject that sports-like attitude. How we act as a nation, especially given our dominance on the world stage, should not be treated as if countries are football teams and every engagement is a game meant to insure our #1 status.
    Instead, I’d rather work to widen the notion of patriotism beyond military strength. After all, what really makes this country great are the individual contributions that every citizen makes in the arts, commerce, and critical thinking.
    What makes me angry, John, are black and white attitudes, like your duck analogy, that simplify the very complicated and variegated issues that confront this country today. That approach will simply not help solve these problems.

  5. John Coalson says:

    This is what you say…
    “I love what the flag should stand for and what it was originally made to stand for.”
    “I appreciate the acts of bravery, sacrifice, and giving that thousands of people have offered to make this country a place I like to live. Our flag is a symbol of those acts to me.”
    “I’d rather work to widen the notion of patriotism beyond military strength. After all, what really makes this country great are the individual contributions that every citizen makes in the arts, commerce, and critical thinking.”
    “But I take exception to those who feel it is their right to narrowly define just what that flag should represent.”
    “And I take an even greater exception to someone telling me just what it should mean and how I should use it.”
    This is what you do…
    “I told her I thought she�d meant well but the flag as a symbol had been so misused over the years it had driven my patriotism underground.”
    This is the spirit in which you did it…
    “…to be honest, we�re going to throw it away, unopened. I would never serve my family something that was given to me by a stranger.”
    This was your opinion of the lady who, ON THE 4TH OF JULY NO LESS, planted an American flag and a jar of apple butter into your life (along with her business card, which would have been incredibly short-sighted of somebody out to do you harm).
    “I found it hard to believe anyone who had lived through all of that could be so clueless.”
    And this is what your take on what the entire affair was…
    “Just between two Americans trying to do the right thing: something each really believed in.”
    Jeff, my compatriot, you really must sit back and take a look at what your admitted liberal bias has created… It seems to me that you are so blinded by fear and contempt of your own nation that you can WRITE (which makes it even more saddening) things of this nature and not even realize how mixed-up and anti-American (yes I said it!) your actions are.
    Man… put yourself in the shoes of this lady, a lady who is a fellow countrymen of yours. She put serious thought, time and effort into this campaign. She executed a patriotic venture, on a patriotic day, and even had the stones to work in the *gasp* capitalist entrepreneurial spirit, upon which this great nation is founded. What’s she get? You, calling her up out of the blue, wanting rain to rain on her parade.
    And you wonder why far-left Liberals are held in such contempt by normal Joe’s such as myself!?
    Please take some time to study the rest of the world and you will see that the United States of America is, was and for the foreseeable future will be, by ANY objective assessment, number one!
    Good day!

  6. Donna says:

    BTW, Jeff, the neighborhood I visited for the 4th of July had realtor-given American flags. My friend told me that this realtor has been doing it for a long time. I guess it is known in real estate circles as an advertising medium.
    Personally, I think it’s in poor taste to use a symbol like that to make money, a little like handing out crosses with your business card on the back.

  7. John Coalson says:

    Donna,
    I think your analogy is a bit flawed. The flag of the United States of America is, as you say, an American symbol. Two of Americas core values are capitalism and the entrepeneurial spirit. So how does a proprietor’s use of the flag show poor taste? Doesn’t it, in fact, support the foundational values of America?
    A cross, doesn’t symbolize a nation, it symbolizes a belief system, usually some form of Christianity. I agree, it would be in poor taste to hand out business cards with crosses. But only because it seems to go against the spirit of Christianity’s core values.

Comments are closed.

© 2001-2015 Jeff Gates ISSN 1544-4074