“A brilliant spark that will fly through the air and set the vapors of our insurrectionary imaginations alight.”John Jordan, founder of Reclaim the Streets
“Even the most elementary grasp of the fundamental idea that one communicates within the experience of his audience — and gives full respect to the other’s values — would have ruled out attacks on the American flag. The responsible organizer would have known that it is the establishment that has betrayed the flag, while the flag itself remains the glorious symbol of America’s hopes and aspirations, and he would have conveyed this message to his audience.”Saul Alinsky
“I’m a patriot. I love my decadent, cosmopolitan, self-indulgent, racially mixed, godless, intellectually dilettante, drug-abusing, promiscuous, queer-loving country. And its flag is the Stars and Stripes.”Patrick Nielsen Hayden
Love your country, and fight so that its flag and other national symbols evoke its most egalitarian and noble values.
Samuel Johnson did not mean patriotism per se when he famously called patriotism the last refuge of a scoundrel. He meant false patriotism. The uncritical, unthinking, “Love it or leave it” variety of patriotism. Unfortunately, because this kind of patriotism is louder, angrier, more shameless, and often used deliberately to squash dissent and debate, it often becomes the only recognized form of patriotism.
Progressives, who tend to have a more nuanced, “Love it and fix it” kind of patriotism, often have a harder time finding their full-throated patriotic voice. And, indeed, there are some excellent reasons to be ambivalent about wielding the symbols of our nation. One is the fact that slavery, genocide, war, and other horrors have been carried out in the name of, and with the symbols of, most nations with a colonial history, including the United States, Canada, Australia, and most of western Europe. Another is the conviction that progressives’ greatest strength is a solidarity narrative based on shared class interest and a common humanity that transcends the boundaries of nation states.
Yet we can’t deny that the idea and symbols of one’s nation move many people deeply and provide a meaningful feeling of social solidarity. If we are to be effective as change agents, we need to engage, claim, and contest the meanings of these symbols. To shun the flag out of an understandable distaste for nationalism is to let our opponents monopolize it. It allows them to use these powerful symbols uncontested. It lets them shape the collective story for their purposes.
The meaning of a given symbol like the flag is not a fixed thing (see THEORY: Floating signifier). Immigrants and their allies who wave the American flag at immigration reform rallies are claiming their rightful share to its meaning. They seek to imbue the flag with meanings of inclusivity and social justice while their opponents wield the symbol for exclusionary, oppressive, xenophobic purposes. Yes, progressives can raise all sorts of factually true points about how the United States is not and has never been a very welcoming nation. And if you’re a history teacher, that’s at least part of what you should tell your students. But if you’re trying to build a mass movement for change, then you need to tell stories that invite people to step into their best selves, as well as their most beloved aspirations for their country.
We must, in other words, recapture the flag. We need to dig into our nation’s history to discover “allies” — the people, principles, and stories that speak to our goals of a better world. Without claiming these stories as part of our history, we are left to engage in head-on attacks against the national institutions we want to change.
Recapturing the flag allows us to challenge the worst parts of nationalism, while also infusing our struggles with a broad appeal to the common values and symbols that move us most.