Rally round the flag

I love Old Glory. I just wonder if I can take it back from the creeps who've waved it all my life.

By King Kaufman

Published September 18, 2001 10:58PM (EDT)

I'm wrestling with the American flag.

It's everywhere now: tiny ones riffling on car antennas, medium ones waving from porches, giant ones yawning from cranes. People are wearing them. Every Old Navy flag shirt ever bought has been pulled out of the drawer this week, and Stars and Stripes 'do rags are all the rage.

There's no flag flying on my porch. I don't have a flag, and they're hard to come by these days anyway -- not that I've tried to get one. And if I had one, I can't figure out if I'd fly it or not.

See, Old Glory and I, we go way back, and we've had our problems.

For most of my life, the American flag has been the cultural property of people I can't stand: right-wingers, jingoists, know-nothing zealots. It's something that hypocritical politicians wrap themselves in. It's something that certain legislators would make it a crime to burn -- a position that's an assault on the very freedom that the flag represents. It's something brandished at times like these by idiots who say things like, "Let's go over there and burn those rag-heads!"

During the Gulf War, I hated the American flag. It was everywhere then, too, on porches and car antennas and over the left breast of every uniformed athlete, all in support of a war I and many others thought to be immoral.

But I also love the flag. Seeing it stirs something in me, even when I'm mad at it, or disagree with those who wave it. I am, after all, an American, and despite being opposed to every single military adventure this nation has undertaken in my lifetime, I'm a patriotic one at that.

For me, though, patriotism is more about the freedom to criticize the government than it is about waving a piece of red, white and blue laundry around and singing "God Bless America." It's about loving our shared national personality -- aggressive, impulsive and open, unimpressed with such Old World nonsense as royalty. It's about feeling at home in a country where the first question asked of new acquaintances is not "Where are you from?" but "What do you do?"; where a loutish baseball star can sit next to a president and say, "Hot as hell, ain't it Prez?" and be loved all the more for it. It's about loving this country's crazy cultural stew -- that "melting pot" that we give ourselves more credit for than we should, but that really does exist.

For me, statements like "America right or wrong" or "America: Love it or leave it," a chestnut from my childhood, are the antithesis of what this country is all about. And those are the sentiments that the flag has come, over many years, to represent for me.

So you'll be surprised to hear that I have an American flag shirt, and maybe surprised to hear that I sometimes wear it -- without irony! -- on occasions such as the Fourth of July. First of all, it's a hell of a shirt since, after all, it's a Grand Old Flag. But I also like what it says. It says I'm an American. Not for me the pretentious Europhile weenieness that sometimes plagues my fellow middle-class American white boys. I'm a proud son of the country that's produced Bart Simpson and Ambrose Bierce, Robert Johnson and Abe Lincoln, Michael Jordan and Doc Holliday. Bruce Springsteen said something in his "Born in the U.S.A." days that stayed with me: "That's my flag too." How did the Republicans and the gun nuts and the xenophobes co-opt it?

There are two kinds of patriots: The "God Bless America" kind and the "This Land Is Your Land" kind. I'm the latter.

On the surface, the songs sound similar: simple melodies with lyrics about America's natural beauty, the mountains and deserts and "oceans white with foam" in one; the Redwood forests, Gulf Stream waters and "sparkling sands of her diamond deserts" in the other.

But that's only because we don't sing all the verses that Woody Guthrie wrote in his song, an answer to "God Bless America," which he hated for its sentimentality and dumb, blind devotion. Here's one of the verses school kids don't sing: "As I was walking, I saw a sign there/And that sign said 'No trespassing'/But on the other side, it didn't say nothing/Now that side was made for you and me." Another verse has "my people" at the relief office, "wondering if this land was made for you and me."

That song's political and social criticism, its questioning, are also part of what make this country great. These things, as much as our culture, our national personality, our country's physical magnificence, are what the flag represents to me.

But when I see that flag flying from a neighbor's porch, I think, "Oh boy, right-wing nut." And I'm not hearing people singing "This Land Is Your Land" over the last week, though "God Bless America" is everywhere.

While I'm not quite a pacifist, I have a pretty simple, even simplistic view of war: You don't fight unless you've been attacked. So now that this country has been attacked, I agree with the vast majority that some sort of military response is warranted. This is a new feeling for me, this feeling that we're the good guys and we're fighting the bad guys. It makes sense that I'd want to fly the good guys' flag, but that flag comes wrapped around a lot of baggage.

There's the bell. The wrestling match continues.

King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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