The American Flag

Beware what you wish for.

“After a long night that turned into a long day, many are breathing a sigh of relief that Donald Trump the man is going down to defeat.  But Trump the movement has consolidated a realignment in American politics that has deeper origins than his shocking triumph in 2016 and which will outlive his narrow defeat in 2020.  While Joe Biden edges to victory, it is almost as shocking that Trump took 48 per cent of votes cast in the middle of a pandemic that he made worse with a cocktail of malice and incompetence.” Jeremy Adelman

Sixty years ago, the revised national flag of the United States was born with its fifty stars and thirteen alternating seven red and six white stripes; Alaska had become a state in 1959 and Hawaii followed in 1960. Old Glory, initially put together by seamstress Betsy Ross, had reached the age of maturity. President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued an Executive Order in 1959 to arrange 49 stars in seven rows with seven stars in each row staggered horizontally and vertically. In 1960, a fiftieth star was added utilizing the same offset grid pattern of fifty white stars on a blue rectangular background. The appearance of this flag as a consecrated image of America had become fixed.

Just over fifty years ago, in 1968, the American Congress passed the Federal Flag Desecration Law. It had become a federal crime to “knowingly cast contempt upon any flag of the United States by publicly mutilating, defacing, defiling, burning, or trampling upon it.” One year later, Apollo II Astronauts planted the American flag on the moon. However, back in America, the Chicago 8 and then 7 were on trial, in good part for mocking the American flag. American youth traveled through Europe with Canadian flags sewn on the back of their denim jackets. Pride in the flag and shame competed to reveal the very deep divide in America that fifty years later became a chasm.

A symbol of lost pride or an expression of protest, that was the question. And Americans had no difficulty in choosing sides. On the north side of the street, Americans saw the flag as a symbol of human rights, freedom and equality all in decline. America had quickly evolved in twenty years from the country that freed Europe to the militarized state that dropped napalm on villages of women and children in Indochina. White supremacists flew the Confederate flag to oppose the efforts at integration. Protesters burned the American flag to express their resistance to the hated military draft.

In the same year that the Cold War ended, in the same year that the Berlin Wall was dismantled brick by brick,  the 1989 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Texas v. Johnson struck down all state and federal flag protection laws as violating the First Amendment right to free speech. Gregory Lee Johnson had burned an American flag outside of the convention center where the 1984 Republican National Convention was being held in Dallas, Texas to protest President Ronald Reagan’s policies. He was arrested and charged under a Texas statute forbidding the desecration of the American flag as an object of veneration. 

The anti-flaggers had won. The protesters against America’s betrayal of human rights, of its heritage off racism, appeared to have won. The American flag was no longer flying as a sign of pride but of shame. Thus, just when the Berlin Wall was being demolished, a new wall of division began being constructed, but this time within America, this time between those who revered and idolized the flag and those who saw it as a symbol of an imperfect union, of a union that had failed to realize its highest ideals.

The schisms sewn in the 1960s and concretized in the 1990s reached their zenith when almost 67 million Americans supported the re-election of Donald Trump as president. In 2016, he had won 46.1% of the popular vote against Hilary Clinton’s 48.2%, but he had won the Electoral College 314 to 227. In 2020, Donald Trump won more votes that Hillary Clinton (66 million) in 2016, 4 million more votes than he had won in 2016. Biden obtained almost 70 million votes.

232,000 Americans had died from the COVID-19 virus in 2020. But more Americans than ever stood in long lines to vote early or mailed their ballots in trepidation that they would not be counted. The ballot remained as the uniting symbol of American democracy as the flag had become the symbol of Trumpism versus Americanism.

A month after a muscle car driver drove into a crown of peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstrators on Fifth Avenue in New York, a month after a parade of drivers in souped-up pickup trucks displaying Trump and American flags drove through the streets of Manhattan in cars with their license plates illegally masked but with snarling faces that were unmasked, on a Sunday as these Trumpists sought to intimidate voters for Biden in a Democratic stronghold, the division of a divided America was on full display. A driver in an SUV drove into a group of pro-Biden supporters on bicycles. The car festooned with American flags had become an assault weapon.

But the election itself was a quiet affair. Americans on both sides were well behaved. The feared domestic terrorists had not appeared on the streets of America. Was this the first sign of success of Joe Biden’s attempt to heal America with a golden smile? Or had the domestic terrorists simply retreated into the woodwork to plan guerilla attacks in the name of Old Glory. After all, caravans of flag-waving cars and muscle trucks had attempted to intimidate Biden-Harris Campaign vehicles on a Texas Highway in what appeared to be an organized attempt to drive the Democratic campaign bus off the road. They did hit and damage one of the Democratic volunteer’s cars on the I-35 on route to San Antonio.

According to Donald Trump, they were just driving to protect the Democratic vehicles. The drivers and passengers of the intimidating vehicles had yelled profanities and screamed obscenities at the passengers in the bus, but presumably that was all for their protection. Trump tweeted urging the FBI to investigate “anarchists and agitators of ANTIFA” instead of focusing on the “patriots” who had escorted the bus and had done nothing wrong. “Trump and the American flag. Trump and the American flag. That’s all you saw,” said Trump to a rally of his supporters.

The American flag had been weaponized.

In his Convention acceptance speech, Joe Biden said, “I will draw on the best of us, not the worst. I will be an ally of the light, not of the darkness. United we can, and will, overcome this season of darkness in America.” Flag-waving idolatrous Americans were relegated to the darkness and liberals were lauded for living in the light. But his was a sermon on unity, not division. In the name of the eternal lightness of being with a winning pearly smile, Biden had adumbrated the coming war between the children of lightness and the children of darkness. Dreamers on bicycles would be arraigned against dragoons in souped-up pickup trucks.

But this was not the vision of Tom Friedman, the esteemed columnist of The New York Times. He had opined that the best outcome of the election would be a Biden victory but with the Republicans retaining control of the Senate (and, presumably, also of the courts across the land). Then once again, Americans could relearn how to speak to one another across the aisle. According to Friedman, Mitch McConnell would metamorphose into a Buberian advocate of dialogue.

That is not a wish. That is not a hope. That is a symptom of mindblindness. The new civil war in America has been a long time in coming. Americans of all stripes bear no tolerance for Iraq Wars, or for Paris Accords for that matter. Americans are now united in turning their backs on the interconnected and interdependent world they had been so instrumental in creating. Americans, whatever the Democratic rhetoric, would have no time for the troubles of the world. They would be too busy fighting a new type of civil war. Americans will be united, but only on turning their backs on the world as one domestic front after another is opened on the as-yet-to-be declared war of the Dreamers versus thee Dragoons.

Beware what you wish for.

The following is a paragraph extracted from an Op-ed that my oldest son is publishing in a French newspaper today. “On election day, I was standing on the sidewalk in my town in central New Jersey and watched as a pick-up truck with a large trailer drove down the main street bedecked with massive TRUMP and American flags.  In the preceding months, this kind of display was becoming more common, a kind of ‘take that’ for genteel onlookers. Weaponized versions were on display among vigilantes during the summer’s street protests. As the truck went by, a woman standing beside me turned to speak through the gauze of her mask: ‘I feel like it is no longer my flag.’  She had lost her credo.”

One comment on “The American Flag

  1. Irv Salit says:

    Just trying to subscribe

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