Facing up to the Flag

Vietnam Vet on Memorial DayMonday was Memorial Day in the US. It was sobering, sad, and impressive.

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…..

6 thoughts on “Facing up to the Flag

  1. Wave it with pride, wear it with pride. My boys have often worn t shirts with Union Jacks and Magen Davids on them ( separately, not together!). I don’t want them to be scared or fear showing their allegiances, though there are many who would disagree with me.

    • Thanks Auntie H. No-one should be afraid of showing their allegiances – but wouldn’t it help (in relation to the Union Jack) if people in the UK were able to articulate with greater clarity what the flag ‘means’ in terms of values? Would a British pledge of allegiance help to do that and would it work?

      • The flag is the symbol of the United Kingdom – it stands for what that country stands for: mostly cheerful amateurishness, upbeat pessimism about things like the weather and sporting events, a belief in “my rights” (whatever those are). People on the left may associate the flag with the far-right, but this shows just how far from the mainstream they have drifted, and nowadays it is nothing of the kind – the Flag of St. George is the preferred symbol, since a flag that is a symbol of unity is not their thing.

      • Thanks for your comments,
        Isn’t the rising prominence of the flag of St George in England an indication of rising regional tendencies in the UK? Apart from expressing the notion of a separate English identity within the country – does it stand for anything distinct (in terms of values or rights) from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?
        And that is where the problem might lie – the difficulty that the UK has in its constituent parts, as well as a whole, in clearly articulating the ideological basis of nationality.

        Regards,
        Richard

  2. Don’t new British citizens have to take some kind of allegiance now? Not sure I would like it. Having recited the Lords Prayer fervently for so many of my younger years it certainly didn’t make me feel too catholic or Christian!

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