We went to the Vietnam Memorial near the White House, to witness the thousands of grizzled veterans visiting the site from all over the country to pay homage to their fallen comrades. The Memorial is sunk into the ground, and like the conflict itself, sits like a scar in the landscape.
Here is a photo of just one of the many who crowded into the site, to lay a flag, or flowers or simply stare at the thousands of names of the American war dead chiseled into the marble.
Times of remembrance in all countries are occasions when the national colours are displayed. And in the US, it is thus, but only more so. On ‘ordinary days’ the Stars and Stripes can be found as the decorative backdrop on suburban streets, in shopping malls, people’s offices and elsewhere.
Coming from the UK, this overt display is unusual and disconcerting. The prevalence of the Stars and Stripes and reverence given to it, is part of the fabric of life here. It is something that is instilled at an early age, as I have discovered from the daily morning ritual at Livvy and Edie’s school (as illustrated by them below).
The Pledge of Allegiance is completely alien to my upbringing and a phenomenon that initially made me squirm with very English discomfort. Growing up in London in the 1970’s the Union Jack was something to be avoided rather than embraced. This wasn’t due to any lack of loyalty to Queen and Country – quite the opposite. My parents felt proud and lucky to have been born and brought up in Britain. But in those days the national flag didn’t feel as if it belonged to people like us.
I remember when I was about ten years old walking with my father through the local shopping area in Ealing where we lived. At the junction of the Broadway and Bond Street, just outside Clark’s shoe shop and opposite John Sanders department store was the unexpected sight of Union Jacks fluttering in the breeze, and alongside a few men handing out pamphlets to passing shoppers. I can’t recall what I felt, but even today the thought of those people and the flags sends a shiver down my spine.
These were the white supremacists of West London from the far-right National Front who’d chosen to come to our leafy suburb as it was situated a few miles from Southall, home to thousands of recent Indian and Pakistani immigrants. While the NF failed to win popular support it did succeed in appropriating the flag and making it a symbol to be feared rather than revered.
The only time I can recall being enamored with the Union Jack was when my parents took us up to Buckingham Palace on the night before the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977 to see the decorations and hubbub for the anniversary. I was so absorbed in the elaborate arrangements of flags hanging above Pall Mall, that I walked straight into a lamp-post acquiring an egg-shaped bump on my head to accompany the mini Union Jack I’d been given.
The physical imprint passed quickly but the political association of the flag as an object to be avoided (along with lamp-posts) stuck with me for a long time. I partially carried my aversion to Israel, where the exploitation of the national colours by ultra-nationalists made me wary of joining in any display of flag-waving, even with ideological fellow travelers from the left (although the anthem and much else besides made my chest swell with pride).
It has taken the unapologetic American embrace of the Stars and Stripes to see the national flag as something which can be used – with extreme care – to generate a positive and unifying sense of identity – free of chauvinism.
The sentiments embodied in the US Pledge of Allegiance are commendable in encompassing nationhood as, ‘indivisible, with liberty and justice for all’. The inclusion of the phrase ‘One Nation under God’ jars with my secular disposition and – in my view – is at odds with the separation of religion and state as set out in the Constitution. Interestingly this change was only introduced sixty years ago in a flush of new found religious enthusiasm by then President – Dwight Eisenhower.
Nonetheless in articulating national values as synonymous with basic human rights the Pledge gets my support. Of course there are those who see the Flag, the Constitution, and American history as a whole, as license to adventurism, intolerance, insane levels of gun ownership, and much else besides. But given that if we are to have nation states (and they are increasing in number rather than diminishing) it is better that the flag be identified with inclusive tolerant values, and harnessed as such. It also seems vital that those of all political stripes (particularly those like me who are somewhat allergic to displays of national devotion) take ownership of the flag – so that it is not left for the chauvinists and bigots – like those from my childhood in Ealing.
In practical terms this means I am at peace with my daughters’ daily pledge to the Flag, and understand why many of my neighbours proudly hang the Stars and Strips from their front porches. But given my lingering inhibitions I will keep my pledges silent, and fly the flag by sentiment rather than overt display.
So let me know What you feel about your national flag…..