Our house came with an American flag.
It seemed to complement our Small Town, U.S.A., zeitgeist. So we let it fly, enjoying its snap and rustle.
Because it was old, however, it quickly grew tattered and moldy and had to be taken down. Fearing that my new South Jersey neighbors would think I was with ISIS, I waited until dark of night to remove it.
We went flag-less for five years until July 4, when we put up a new Old Glory gifted to us by my brother-in-law, Alec, who explained that people on the political left like him “are patriots, too.”
I figured we’d keep it waving at least through the Olympics. Our water polo athletes need all the support they can get.
As we set about attaching the flag to its pole, I got to thinking about Alec’s words and realized that this was no inconsequential act: Showing the Stars and Stripes can be fraught business these days.
The flag has grown politicized, more specifically linked in the public square, rightly or wrongly, to Donald Trump and people who follow him.
As the New York Times, currently in a spat on social media for expressing thoughts about the flag, observed, “Today, flying the flag ... is increasingly seen as a clue ... to a person’s political affiliation in a deeply divided nation.”
Because I’m a reporter, I’m not supposed to declare a Donkey/Elephant allegiance: no lawn signs for a candidate, no bumper stickers touting a cause. The editor of a paper I worked at years ago told me that he never even voted, such was his fear of showing bias.
I won’t go that far. As an American, I get to vote. And as a person who loves his country — while remaining aware of its myriad blemishes and deficiencies — I’ll put up my brother-in-law’s flag.
One detractor, however, is my daughter.
She’s a smart 17-year-old who was born in Guatemala, a country that endured a 30-year civil war fomented in part by the CIA. My girl, who has a mix of Indigenous American, Latina, and Black blood, got a final grade of 100 in honors 11th-grade American history, so she knows some stuff.
She’s been ambivalent about the emblem on the porch. “I’m not saying there aren’t great things in this country that I appreciate,” she told me. “But we still live with racism and sexism and other things. There are lots of ways to show you’re patriotic other than flying a flag: Donate to charity, fight for equality, be a kind citizen.”
I get all that. But I’m still a flag man.
One big reason I revere the flag, I think, is the indoctrination I received as a kid at P.S. 177 in Brooklyn in the 1960s. Occasionally, boys like me, who had to dress like insurance salesmen in white shirts and ties during assembly, were made to carry giant flags anchored in below-the-waist harnesses that constricted our ... laps, shall we say.
We were essentially told that the American flag meant so much more than any of our stinking lives did.
That fostered the belief that if I were to somehow trip and allow the precious cloth to swipe the floor, the Earth would split open in an outer-borough cataclysm and swallow up me, Mrs. Moss, and all my classmates, who — along with Abe Lincoln — would curse me through eternity for the unspeakable desecration.
My other source of flag respect comes from my Army sergeant father, who fought in Korea. He once told me that whenever he was in a place where that banner flew, it meant he could breathe a little easier, at least for a while.
What I tell my daughter is that I can still love the symbol of America without condoning all of its flaws. Uncle Sam is like many other family members who can do you proud and do you dirty, often in the same weekend.
I would never burn the flag, I told her. But neither would I ram a flagpole into the belly of a U.S. Capitol Police officer.
It’s hard for me to understand people who say of America, “Love it or leave it.” I’m more in the camp of James Baldwin, who said, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
I’ve come to realize that, as Michael Douglas said in the film The American President, the United States puts up a fight when you try to define or classify it: “America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship.”
To comprehend this country, you need to be able to simultaneously hold within your head endless lists of contradictory actions and attitudes:
The nation that was settled by pioneers who endured deathly conditions made a genocidal science of eliminating much of the Indigenous population.
The country conceived in “liberty and equality” by rich gentry declared freedom from an aging empire in one breath while enslaving, raping, and killing Africans to build a new republic in the next.
The country fought to liberate Europe from tyranny during WWII; in the years bracketing that war, between 1882 and 1968, America lynched at least 3,446 Black people.
Lyndon Johnson signed the most sweeping civil rights legislation since Reconstruction into law 57 years ago this month while escalating the Vietnam War, which killed an estimated 1.3 million people during U.S. involvement.
Richard Nixon secretly bombed Cambodia and bequeathed the legacy of Watergate, while growing the food-stamp program from five million to 15 million citizens.
And Barack Obama fought to give health care to low-income people, while his administration deported thousands and worked to seize reporters’ phone records and jail their sources.
Some see our national standard and envision only the evils. “The flag stands for intimidation, censorship, violence, bigotry, sexism, homophobia, and shoving the Constitution through a paper shredder,” said author Barbara Kingsolver.
Another famous quote, of unknown origin, declared, “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the American flag.” A few say that’s what we’re actually seeing now.
The other day, my wife and I were watching the news and talking about the state of the union. What popped into my head was, of all things, a line from the film Jerry Maguire, in which Renée Zellweger says she loves Tom Cruise “for the man he almost is.”
Ultimately, for me, the flag is the embodiment of an ideal — a kind of promise, both solemn and sacred — of a country that’s yet to be: the America on the horizon, the America of our dreams.