Friday, December 16, 2016

The American Flag and Patriotism

After the last presidential election and the surprise victory of Donald Trump, the students at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts took down the flag on their campus. Someone burned an American flag.

The flag being a symbol of America, they expressed their rejection of the sort of America that they consider Donald Trump to represent, an America that is loud, aggressive, and racist. It was a way of disassociating themselves from the America that had come to the fore in this last election.

The members of a nearby Veterans of Foreign Wars Post were very disturbed by this disrespect of the American flag and held a number of demonstrations across from the campus to ask that the flag be restored to its customary place.

Respecting the flag is involved in patriotism. The disagreement over flying the flag on campus was clearly a disagreement about what it means to be a patriotic American.
There are different kinds of patriotism. Patriots, for whom respecting the flag is  a large part of being patriotic, are often ill-informed. They are likely to drive around with a bumper sticker saying "America Number One;" they are surprised and incredulous when they hear that America is, in fact, not number one, when they find out that America spends more on medical care than other countries while our medical care is inferior to that received by citizens elsewhere. They don't believe  that other countries provide better education for more of their children than we do. They do not know that America incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country except Russia, more than Adolf Hitler’s Germany. Their love of country most likely is a way of making themselves feel better in a life that is profoundly unsatisfactory. If they are white, their love of country is likely to include a hefty dose of racism.

Here is where the story about the flag on the Hampshire College campus becomes interesting. The patriotism of the members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post across from Hampshire College turns out not to be of the standard sort.

These are the leaders of this veterans organization: Victor Nuñez Ortiz, who was seven years old when he came to the US with his parents, fleeing the Civil War in El Salvador; Gamalier Rosa born in Puerto Rico. Both objected strongly against any hate messages directed at the students. Both reject racists and bullies. A third vet, very active in the Post is an Army veteran, Brianna MacKinnon, who is transitioning from male to female.

This coming week Ortiz is going out to North Dakota to stand with Native Americans at Standing Rock in their protest against building a pipeline that will endanger their water supply and violate sacred burial grounds.

Ortiz clearly understands that America is not Number One, but that, on the contrary, the values we cherish are always in danger and need to be protected. This is why hundreds of veterans are assembling at Standing Rock. His patriotism is a critical patriotism. As an immigrant, he values the shelter America provided for  him. But he also understands how precarious those protections are.

Lowering the flag, the veterans felt to be disrespectful for their military service in Iraq. That, too, is a complex matter. From the perspective at home, the Iraq war was a terrible mistake. From the perspective of those who served there, their experiences, their losses as well as the enormous losses of the Iraqi people, should not be denigrated by people in the United States. One can reject the war as an immoral undertaking and treat those who fought it, and those who were victimized by it with the respect they deserve.

This matter of respecting the flag has many complications because there are different kinds of patriotism.  Some patriots are ill-informed and are proud of a country that is best in all respects, that is, of course, a mere fiction. This sort of patriotism can be found everywhere and it is equally despicable everywhere, whether that be here at home, or in Serbia, or in Ruanda, in India and Pakistan, in Argentina  or Brazil, or in most other countries in the world. It frequently is trotted out to justify wars of conquest and genocide. It only serves to mislead gullible populations.

But there is also, of course, a very different patriotism. It does not brag about our wealth and military might. It values our political institutions. It understands that we never quite succeed in living up to our political ideals and  that patriots must therefore dedicate themselves to helping to make them as real as we can. They care less about making America great than about equality and respect for the freedoms of all.

Respect for the flag means different things. It may honor men and women who fought in one of our wars. It may honor a country that exists only in a fictional universe. Or it my serve to remind us that the institutions we are proud of such a our democracy or the legal system are always endangered, never more so than today, and it is the patriots’ work to loudly identify the dangers and to try to protect these institutions.

That is what respect for the flag means in the conflict over flying the flag at Hampshire College.