What It Means To Be American On Flag Day

Ross Irwin

I can’t remember the first time I stood for the Flag. Most likely it was for some sporting event or at school. At that time, I had no idea why I was standing, no concept of a flag, or pride in one’s country, or even a country for that matter. But that moment was my first moment of patriotism, however unknowingly, by way of a salute to “the Flag”. 

The flag has been used to express both pride and disdain for America’s culture and policy. Both are displays of patriotism and are equally important in helping us to move the country forward.

For some, a flag is a colored piece of cloth. For others, it is the representation of the highest ideals of our country. It’s been used by Americans as a show of strength and pride; It’s been seen by migrants as a promise of freedom and opportunity. For some, it’s a symbol of inequality and oppression. In reality, it’s what you make of it. 

I stand for the flag because while America’s promise is not complete, the ideals of equal protection, fair representation, and egalitarian input in governance are some of the most honorable rules of government that humanity has ever seen. But that work is not done, and so most of all I stand for the aspirational America, and because I want to be part of the change that helps our country fulfill its ideals more completely. 

My mom has a different relationship with the flag. As a self-ascribed pacifist and socialist, she is generally opposed to “nationalism that puts the welfare of the inhabitants of one country above others.” As a high school teacher for over 30 years, each work day would begin with a school-wide pledge to the flag. She did stand, but did not recite the pledge. When I asked her about this, her answer was very nuanced. Essentially, she has trouble “pledging loyalty to a flag that has been or is being used to defend so much injustice and inequality”. 

Many other people I love would be aghast at that statement – taken aback by the full-throated critique of their beloved home. I think my mom’s decision is just as important, and American, as my own decision to stand.

As Flag Day approaches on June 14, our toxic partisanship machine will ramp up. Some will debate the “proper” way to observe and interpret the flag, but I believe standing and sitting are equally American. Sitting quietly through the Pledge of Allegiance and belting out the National Anthem are commensurate patriotic expressions, and I believe that a new America will be crafted in the tension between those beliefs.

America’s history with its flag is long and complicated. Since its establishment 245 years ago, the dichotomy between those that love the flag and those that hate it has only become more pronounced. In the 1960’s, Americans were simultaneously burning the flag in the street and planting it on the Moon. In 2016 Colin Kaepernick re-ignited this debate and Americans of all backgrounds weighed in on whether he should be fired or celebrated. 

But all of these people have pushed America to more accurately fulfill its promise of equality of opportunity and government by and for the People. The America we see today has been created by those that were disappointed with America and strove to make it better and those that loved America and wanted to push its principles further. 

In this debate I believe there is only one belief that is distinctly anti-American. Many Americans who think of themselves as first-rate patriots repeatedly yell and whine that those who do not “respect the flag” should be forcefully removed from this great country. That, in its essence, is far worse than not standing for the anthem or reciting the pledge. It is a denial of our first amendment rights and a refusal to see the diversity that has, and will continue to make America better. Our disagreements and our desire for better is the vehicle that has created the nation you see today.

Tomorrow’s America must be created together, by those that love the flag and those that hate it. It will take a recognition of what we’ve gotten right and what we’ve gotten wrong, when we’ve been the hero and when we were the villain. But it must be created together. Otherwise we will be left with an America modeled off of 1950’s nostalgia or an America devoid of the foundational principles that have allowed our improvement. So let’s join hands, whether they are glued to your heart in praise, or firmly at your side in disgust, so that we may create a new America, one that celebrates our differences and disagreements.