Adapting to Our Flag Culture:
on Returning to the United States for the First Time Since September 11th
By Grant Rosenberg


In the January 17th Onion newspaper, a headline reads "Area Man Not Exactly Sure When To Take Down American Flags." The satire goes on to quote the 47-year old fictional Utica, NY man as saying that the war in Afghanistan is winding down so maybe he should, but Bin Laden is still at large. The troops are still over there, so do we fly the flags until every last troop is back? "I’m not trying to be a jerk," he says. He accumulated five flags over a period of weeks, and after donating money to the Boy Scouts, received yet another, but, "I’m just not a six-flag kind of guy." He goes back and forth about what’s appropriate until finally lamenting, "screw it—I’ll just leave the things where they are."

Underneath the humor, as always in The Onion, is the very core of the issue; nobody knows when to take down their flags, because there was no official directive that told everyone that they should have gone up in the first place. It just happened, a spontaneous outpouring of grief, pride, solidarity and defiance. So many people, in the aftermath of Sept. 11th, asked what they could do. Among so many daily newspapers, The Chicago Sun-Times responded by adding, "FLY THE FLAG," in small capital letters next to a flag and the paper’s title.

I didn’t see any of these things, being in Europe from the beginning of September until the end of December. I watched CNN that first week, read countless articles online the weeks and months thereafter. Repeatedly, people in the United States wrote to me that I had no idea what it was like at home, it was a feeling they couldn’t explain, that the country I left was not the one I would return to. While I didn’t doubt this, I felt that I was getting a fair idea of what it was like here, but I now see that I had no idea at all. As a friend put it to me the other day, "I think what you missed was really seeing what it meant to have the country just completely shut down."

The second and third weeks of September in Paris were a time of mourning as well—an outpouring of flowers and messages and memorials at the American Embassy, the American Church of Paris and other places. Some of this came from Americans living in Paris, but most was an outpouring from French people. And the perspective remained that way; a horrible thing happened, but over there. It was an attack on democratic nations in general, but despite many people from other nations being among the casualties, it was the United States, its citizens, its firefighters that died. And the country responded in kind.

In my ride home from O’Hare airport on December 21st for an extended visit, I asked if there had been a resurgence in the number of flags out, perhaps for the holidays. I simply couldn’t believe that all of these cars, homes, restaurants and businesses with flags and other patriotic memorabilia had remained this way. I was told that what I saw was a fraction of what had been displayed in September and October.


Last week on a drive between Chicago and Louisville, Kentucky, I saw a billboard that read in large letters, "United We Stand" on a white background. In the lower corner was the logo for Stuckey’s restaurant, and directions to the nearby location. This struck me as a bit offensive, such an overt act of capitalizing on patriotism for the sake of financial gain. AT&T Wireless has the same sorts of ads, though the Stuckey’s seemed an even more egregious example since it actually leads you to the place of business. It is interesting to note that these along with so many others are violating the Flag Code (U.S. Code, Title 4, Chapter 1, Section 8, line (i) which begins by stating that, "The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever." [The full code can be found at http://www4.law.cornell.edu/uscode/4/8.html]. I point this out mainly to comment on how much the rules have been changed unofficially in the last few months, including the display of flags in the dark without proper illumination—which many homes are doing. And yet this part seems right to me, that emotion should trump formality.

Out for a drink with friends a week ago, the discussion turned to this subject, and a married couple praised the Chicago daily newspapers for printing up paper flags. Because the stores had sold out, they gave people flags to display in their windows, particularly those in this couple’s heavily Pakistani neighborhood. My friends, both WASP, likened it to the lamb’s blood that the Israelites painted on their doors in the story of Passover, so that the Angel of Death would know which houses to pass over and not kill the first born inside. To my knowledge there was no violence against anyone in this neighborhood, but in this instance it was directly a way for these people to demonstrate their devotion to this country. For them, particularly those from the Middle East, this entire discussion is a different one.


The ubiquity of flags has always made me, like many, a bit uneasy. It has been difficult to separate patriotism from jingoism. The Red Scare and the rebellions of the late-60s only cemented this for future generations, giving the flag and the Pledge of Allegiance a sense of something almost un-American in its demand for devotion. Within my own lifetime, the über-patriotism employed by Ronald Reagan (leading to his re-election campaign’s misunderstanding and misuse of Springsteen’s raging song of protest, "Born in the USA") through that of the first President Bush’s Gulf War, and at times even Clinton’s teary-eyed pride had the same effect. A common sentiment I have heard in the last few months from friends on the left has been how suddenly, it is okay to fly a flag. They can’t believe that they themselves are doing it, a form of liberal culture shock from former hippies to the youth on campuses today. For lefties, this is the corollary effect of the recent events; just as the Gulf War helped the military purge the ghosts of Vietnam, this war, this "just war," is allowing us all to be patriotic on our sleeves and not necessarily bring with it the bad connotations. The flag has been taken back as a symbol of unity of all people, not just those who support the particular administration in office or its policies.

Explaining this to French friends has resulted in a bit of a culture clash. Even when France has experienced terrorism, it has been responded to with a gamut of emotions from anger to solemnity, but not, according to those I spoke with, a display of flags. France is not a flag culture; certainly there are French flags on government buildings, schools and sports stadiums, but individuals do not own them, they are not used in fashion or album covers and there are no songs or holidays for the flags. There is no constitutional amendment about burning the flag, because they just don’t do it over there—it isn’t packed with the symbolism that ours is to the rest of the world and as a statement of domestic or foreign policies. Primarily, I would think, this is because France does not have the same role that the U.S. does in the world. Their blue, white and red flag is simply Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité. Unless, of course, we are talking about sporting events. And therein lies the difference; the World Cup, for example, is a contest between nations, and it makes sense to demonstrate one’s "nation-spirit" in contrast to another nation. That is why the saturation of flags and stickers and signs saying "Proud to be An American" seems a bit absurd to people in other countries. They are asking themselves who we are trying to prove it all to, as if the U.S. either has a chip on our collective shoulder or are a bit too insecure and have something to prove. A bit of "methinks the lady doth protest too much."


After a couple of weeks here, as I reached the point of saturation, after all the ads telling us our civic duty is to spend money, that phrase in the Chicago Sun Times, "Fly the Flag" seemed less a suggestion to bewildered and confused citizens in the immediate days after the attacks, and began to take on an air more of an admonition, a command. If it was all a spontaneous outpouring, it doesn’t need directives, nor do businesses need to accumulate more patriotic insignias to prove their dedication to the nation, an ersatz form of "keeping up with the joneses."

And yet, despite my misgivings about all this, all the discussions I’ve had about, it did get to me on that same drive between Chicago and Louisville. A long flag flapped from a stick, at the base of a driveway near a group of mobile homes off the highway, where there wasn’t another flag for miles. It didn’t lose its power because of overexposure. It wasn’t put up by a corporate power trying to push a product. It was just a family feeling a sense of unity with their countrymen and wanting to show it. If it hadn’t been there I wouldn’t think they were any less patriotic. When I saw that flag, all the issues of jingoism fell away. It was tattered and solitary and just plain humble, and its image stays with me.