A few nights ago, I attended a Boston Pops concert. It had a patriotic theme, and ended with John Philip Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever. As the march hit its stride, a huge flag unfurled on the stage over the musicians. Members of the audience responded enthusiastically. The person next to me made a remark about how patriotism felt different when we were younger, to which I responded, “The music is good.”
We know that patriotic sentiments have deep roots, just as love and loyalty toward family members do. We love our country without knowing exactly why. The flag symbolizes both our country and our love for it, so we respond with positive sentiments when it unfurls during Stars and Stripes Forever. So why does patriotism feel different now – why is it the source of such mixed feelings?
The problem is that the government appropriates the country’s flag as its own emblem. The government identifies itself with the country so closely that you can’t tell the difference between the two. For example, treason is a crime against your country. It occurs if you conspire with a foreign army to help it invade your homeland. When you act to replace your government, that’s not treason. That’s firing a group of employees who no longer serve you well. Government, of course, doesn’t make that distinction. From its perspective, acting against your government and betrayal of your country are the same thing.
We can see that government is not the only entity to make this kind of mistake. We saw this confusion in the 2004 presidential campaign. John Kerry joined the army, then protested the Vietnam war out of love for his country. The swift boaters attacked him because they saw his criticism of our government as a betrayal of his country. They attacked him as a scoundrel because he criticized his government during wartime. You can’t elect a traitor as president, the swift boaters implied.
Right now citizens have to choose whether to follow a government that has become unconstitutional. When the flag unfurls to Stars and Stripes Forever, our question should be: how can we protect this symbol of our union and our beloved land from a criminal government? The flag doesn’t symbolize our government. It symbolizes our commitment to each other. It’s kind of like the country’s wedding ring. The fact that our country has made our flag hated around the world shouldn’t lessen our love for it here. Abroad, it symbolizes Abu Ghraib, Bagram, Fallujah, Guantanamo. Here it evokes the sentiments in Woody Guthrie’s anthem: This land was made for you and me. If we keep the distinction between country and government alive, we’ll separate our flag from our government’s crimes.
How can we restore our flag’s significance? Strip it from all government buildings and installations, including military installations and national parks. If the government wants a symbol, let it hoist a strip of soiled toilet paper. Strip the government of the legitimacy and honor it receives because it wears a symbol that doesn’t belong to it. This exchange of symbols, the red white and blue for soiled toilet paper, would remind us all that the government acts for itself, not for us. Young men and women would not want to volunteer to fight for it anymore. People would recognize what a parasite it has become, a tapeworm in our bowel. We would have our wedding ring back.