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.