Reclaiming the Flag: What We Love About Our Country
by Mary Mullen
Presented at Prairie Unitarian Universalist Society, July 4, 2010

Today is the 4th of July. All year long we’ve seen the fireworks warehouses. And all week long we’ve heard fireworks going off. In this neighborhood, we will probably be hearing them for another month. It’s a paroxysm of patriotism.

Well, maybe not. Maybe we just like the big booms and the sparkling showers, the whistling, hissing and and bright colors.

But more seriously, what does it mean to be patriotic, to be a patriot, to love your country, and to love the flag that is a symbol of your country? And should we even consider loving the flag?

When I suggested that our Fourth of July topic should be “Reclaiming the Flag,” I had a point of view in mind. It’s this. It gripes me, downright gripes me, that I should give up the flag of my country to people like those in the Tea Party movement. I have lived in the United States my entire life except for a few months in Europe twice, a few drives through Canada, one daytrip across the border to Mexico and another short vacation there, and a brief sojourn in Thailand. I’m entitled to love my country.

Learning that the flag is a symbol
When I went on my first trip to Europe, I had no idea how it would feel to come home. My husband and I had traveled to Europe in the fall planning to stay an entire year. By December we were ready to return home. Maybe the fact Holland is so far north that even at noon in the winter, our shadows were 40 feet long had something to do with it. Maybe the early return had something to do with car camping. Those 16-hour nights on an improvised straw bed were mighty long.

I wasn’t prepared for a year in Europe.

But neither was I prepared for coming home.

Even as a young woman in my 20s, I was never a flag-lover. Sure, I sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” and usually held my hand over my heart while I sang – this was back in the 1960s. I still always sing along. But I thought it was crazy to love the flag as an object. I thought it was nuts to make it a crime to wear the flag or burn it in protest. A flag is a symbol, not a human being, not the substance of a country. So how could I have been prepared for how I responded when we returned to the United States and I saw the stars and stripes waving in the breeze?

When I saw the red, white, and blue fluttering on its flagpole, I got all choked up. That flag really did represent my country, my home, and everything I had been familiar with all my life as opposed to everything that was strange and foreign and different and difficult about being in places with different scenery, different buildings, different ways of being, and - most constantly frustrating - different languages. Even though I had studied German, I was far from being truly fluent. And even though in the Netherlands I once suddenly felt that I was understanding Dutch over the radio in a restaurant one night, and every person there speaks English, being in a foreign country isn’t easy.

Even Canada, which I liked to think was just like being in the U.S., and where English was spoken everywhere I had traveled up until then, had it’s off-putting customs. The main one I remember is that the taverns required me to enter through a different door than men. My husband could go through the front door that I believe was labeled “Gentlemen,” while I was only permitted to enter through a side door with a sign “Ladies and Escorts.” What’s that all about, I wondered? I felt insulted.

I think I learned what 16th century poet and landscaper William Shenstone said: “The proper means of increasing the love we bear our native country is to reside some time in a foreign one. “ Maybe some of you have had this experience.

OK, so I learned that even for me the flag really did symbolize my country and that I loved being back in my own country.

I said I had a gripe about claiming the flag. It’s this. Tea Partiers and warmongers and reactionaries and self-named conservatives have commandeered our flag. They’ve given the flag a meaning that makes some of the rest of us want shun it. And we have let them get away with it. We have sort of just simply laid down and let them imbue the flag with nastiness. They’ve in a way taken away our country by taking away the flag.

Flag songs – one reason to reject claiming the flag
But it’s also the words of the songs as well as the attitudes that go with flagwaving that have given the flag a bad name with many of us, myself included. And here, I pause think of the words of a few flagwaving songs. Let’s start with the National Anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It’s basically a war song.

Think of the words in the verse we all know: “the perilous fight…the ramparts…the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air…” If you go on to the next verses we don’t ever hear – and I won’t quote them – you find out that every single verse has war imagery or language.

I checked on a couple of other flag songs.

Another patriotic song about the flag is “You’re a Grand Old Flag.” I learned that it was a song George M. Cohan wrote in 1906 for his stage musical George Washington, Jr. I’ll have to admit I have probably only been aware of the chorus. I may be in good company. Reuben Arnold will sing the chorus for us.

You're a grand old flag,
You're a high flying flag
And forever in peace may you wave.
You're the emblem of
The land I love.
The home of the free and the brave.
Ev'ry heart beats true
'neath the Red, White and Blue,[4]
Where there's never a boast or brag.
But should auld acquaintance be forgot,
Keep your eye on the grand old flag.

Not too much to object to there, unless you simply don’t want to have a song about the flag at all. It was written for a musical after all. Other verses refer to the feeling I had when I saw the flag upon my return from Europe although the experience recalled in the song is “listening to the music of a military band” or simply seeing it wave. He says, “Ev’ry time I see it waving,/There’s a chill runs up my back that makes me glad I’m what I am.” Then he goes on to refer to “a land of a million soldiers,/ That’s if we should need ‘em,/We’ll fight for freedom!” It continues: “Hurrah! Hurrah! For every Yankee tar/And old G.A.R.” So again the flag has a military context.

You may not know that Cohan wrote this song after an encounter with a Civil War veteran who fought in Gettysburg. This veteran was holding a carefully folded but ragged old flag. Reportedly the man turned to him and said, ”She’s a grand old rag.” That’s the sentence Cohan put in his first draft of the song. The first version of the chorus went “You’re a grand old rag / You’re a high-flying flag.” But wouldn’t you know that so many people objected to calling the flag a rag that he revised the song.

His second version of the chorus began, “You’re a grand old flag / Though you’re torn to a rag.” In the final version, there’s no reference to the flag as a rag at all.

Another flag song is “Starts and Stripes Forever,” the John Philip Sousa march. I never realized it had words. Surprisingly, its words have a far less war-like or military tone than “The Star-Spangled Banner” does.

Rejecting the flag because unsavory people
Even if it weren’t for the military tone of flag songs, we might still hesitate to claim the flag for other reasons. One is because it is often used to great excess by Americans who have militant, narrow-hearted views that are anathema to ours. They use the flag as a sort of cover to legitimize their activities and opinions. We don’t want to be taken for one of them! By them, of course I mean Tea Partiers and people we would name-call as warmongers, reactionaries, or simply crazies. How can we keep ourselves and our values separate, if we use the same symbol?

And so we give up the flag. We don’t want to be confused with them and we don’t want to use a symbol simply to bring someone to our side. In a way it’s rather like rejecting religion because of some of the fanatics who have done awful things in the name of religion. (Some of us may have done that sort of rejecting too.)

I have to tell you that I once used another symbol – the cross – simply because I knew that the elected official I wished to influence was a born-again Christian. I wore my cross necklace at a public hearing, thinking that I would get his ear that way. Perhaps an illegitimate use of a symbol – to use it for a private and political end, but at the time, I thought that if a person is so attached to a symbol that he would let that superficial thing prevent him from discerning my tactic, he deserved to be misled.

But this recollection in turn reminds me of a professor I had who once explained why he wore a suit even though he preferred dressing otherwise. He pointed out that his manner of dress let him in the door to talk to people who would have rejected him out of hand had he worn, say, hippie costume. The moral of that story? Displaying the flag may give any one of us a chance to engage people of differing views, a chance we might not have if we pointedly did not do so. And actually, that was how I had used the cross – to get a hearing.

Utah Phillips’ lesson
But now I’d like to the second aspect of my reclaiming the flag topic: “What We Love about Our Country.” In the circles I travel in, people don’t spend much time on that subject. We are like Clarence Darrow who said, "True patriotism hates injustice in its own land more than anywhere else." And then like many who are full of criticism, we spend our whole lives focusing on the injustices and never mentioning the positives.

Whenever I start to look at the positives, I think of the time that our fellow Prairie member Donna Murdoch and I were in a Race Relations Circle together. Afterward, I got the idea of making a video featuring the members of our group. While I was videotaping her, Donna made a very eloquent statement about the ideals of our country – how noble they are – liberty and justice for all - and about the many people who have tried to make them realities. This is something that we Americans can rightly be proud of.

My thinking about patriotism also got a shot in the arm this past weekend at GA. I attended a performance called “Singing Through the Hard Times: Remembering Utah Phillips.” Utah, a folk singer, was a Korean War veteran. During his time in Korea he came to feel that he’d been lied to about the war. He was also deeply affected by the devastation and human misery he had seen. He decided that never again was he going to let someone else decide who his enemy was.

When he got out of his 3 years in military, he was a very angry man. Like any number of returning war veterans then and today, he couldn’t get his life together. He drifted. He drank. He rode the rails. He ended up in Salt Lake City at a homeless shelter.

Fortunately for him it was operated by the anarchist Ammon Hennacy. Hennacy was a member of the Catholic Worker movement and an associate of Dorothy Day. While at the shelter, Utah often got into fights. He hated his country for being involved in Korea. But Ammon Hennacy saw something else in Utah Phillips. Hennacy said to him: “You know, Utah, you don’t hate your country at all. You’re traveling all around singing. You are enjoying the natural environment of the United States. You are enjoying the people you meet. You love your country. What you hate is its government.” That was another turning point for Utah.

I think many of us have felt that way – that the government doesn’t represent our point of view and that it acts in unconscionable and even evil ways. But should we let government policies make us hate our country? I don’t think so.

Furthermore, I agree with former President Bill Clinton who said: "The new rage is to say that the government is the cause of all our problems, and if only we had no government, we'd have no problems. I can tell you, that contradicts evidence, history, and common sense." End of quote. If all of a sudden we had no one to call on to address grievances, no way to fund protection of the environment, no laws that helped to provide open space in developing areas, no laws at all about finances Đ although sometimes it seems like we donŐt - or anything at all, do we really believe everything would be perfect?

At the workshop on Utah Phillips, we learned that Utah was a founder of his UU church in Grass Valley, CA, which also serves Nevada City, CA, where Utah lived. It is the UU Community of the Mountains. Utah also founded a homeless shelter in his rural home county which 5 years later continues to have 25-30 guests a night.

Utah, because of Ammon Hennacy, mellowed out and saw his country and his place in it in a different way. He took up his guitar and his story-telling and used both to help people understand their down-on-their luck experiences that were like his. He operated in the tradition of the best of our country – in his public life as a singer championing people down on their luck, for himself and others establishing a UU church that champions searching for and following your own beliefs, and toward the end of his life providing shelter for those who have no home. He did indeed love his country.

His view is expressed in one of the many verses of his song “All Used Up,” a song with plenty of bombast against being used up by the system and then discarded. But he puts a positive twist on it. He says:
        And there's songs and there's laughter and things I can do
And all that I've learned I can give back to you
And I'd give my last breath just to make it come true
And to know I'm not all used up

Utah Phillips also wrote “The Green Rolling Hills” of West Virginia. It’s about loving that beautiful place.

Another very sweet song is “I Believe If I Lived My Life Again.” He says:
        I believe if I lived my life again
I'd still be here with you

Intro to sharing (SHORT)
I could go on and explain all the things I love about my country, but I want to give you all a turn at talking about how you feel about claiming the flag and what you love about this country.

It’s your time now…

Intro to sharing (LONGER alternate ending, for those not at the service to hear the sharing)

It will soon be time for you all to have your turn at talking about how you feel about claiming the flag and what you love about this country.

To start the ball rolling, I want to briefly tell you first some of the things I love about our country.

Of course I have a great affection for the scenery and geography of the United States especially for the beautiful place I grew up in southwestern Wisconsin. I also appreciate all the people I was lucky enough to grow up around. I especially appreciated the Bohemians who were an ethnic group there – very down to earth, very hospitable and friendly. In so saying, I’m recognizing that a strength of the U S is the many people who have settled here and shared their values and gifts.

Another thing I love about our country is that our constitution is idealistic, and we are free to work actively for its ideals, usually without danger to our lives, although sometimes that isn’t true. As a college student, I was an exchange student to Atlanta’s Spelman College, a college for black women. I’m grateful for the people in 1960 who established that exchange program and gave me the chance to experience the beginnings of civil rights movement in Atlanta. Through that experience I learned that I too could think up ideas and implement them with others to improve conditions.

I am also very grateful for open government – although, of course, there’s always room for improvement. But I have learned about the openness of our government and have used it first-hand. I remember my great surprise the first time I went down to the city clerk’s office to get a voter’s registration list. Did they ask me to prove who I was or ask why I wanted it or in any other way try to discourage me? No. In accordance with open government policies, they simply handed over the lists.

More recently, I’ve also made use of the open records laws to find out how the police investigated the disappearance of money left in the care of the assisted living facility my 98-year-old mother lives in. In addition, I’ve used the services of the state Health and Social Services Bureau of Assisted Living to fight unfair practices at that same facility.

Years ago, I used our state Consumer Affairs unit to stop harassment of my partner by the Telecheck company for a bill she had already paid but which they were claiming she didn’t pay. This company called her weekly to harass her for a $70 bill, and when I took over trying to prove that it was paid, I spent many hours over many weeks being shunted around from employee to employee. I sent proof of the canceled check. Nothing worked. But making the complaint to the State of Wisconsin stopped this harassment dead in its tracks.

The fact that we have such open records laws and that our government has developed bureaus of people to help consumers is a strength of our government for which I’m very grateful.

I’ve also found elected officials and government staff at the local and state levels both accessible and helpful. Their responsiveness does not depend on what family I come from, whether I’m already known to them, or not. No bribes required either.

Finally, I’m also very happy that I can travel freely almost anywhere in the country. I don’t have to get prior permission and I don’t have to check in with authorities either.

So, now it is your turn….