I fly the American flag in front of my house to remind me of the radical freedoms I have as a U.S. citizen. As an American woman, seeing the flag as I leave and return to my home inspires my resolve to speak loudly for social justice, to vote for elected officials according to my conscience, and to practice civility toward my fellow citizens. I’m free to join a march for BLM or women’s rights. I’m free to assemble for protests against injustice. I’m free to read and study the ideas of great thinkers, philosophers, and writers, as long as the text is written in English. For me, access to books, any and all of them, is a treasured freedom and one of my greatest pleasures.
Flying the American flag where I can see it every day reminds me that the same freedoms belong to every citizen. I’ll admit, sometimes I’ve taken my freedoms for granted, like my freedom to exist without fear in public spaces—the grocery store or strolling in the park—without being alert for violence. William T. Vollmann writes about the kind of violence I’m talking about in his essay, “The Back of My Head.” Vollmann was working as a journalist in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, during 1992 when the capital was under siege. While walking through the city, Vollmann felt like a target was tattooed on the back of his head. He writes, “No matter which way I turned, the sniper who was going to kill me kept the back of my head in his sights.” Always, Vollmann felt like a sniper was behind him, no matter how often he turned around. I have generally never had to worry about the equivalent of a sniper behind me. In the best of all possible worlds, every U.S. citizen, regardless of race, gender, age, marital status, national origin, religion, or disability, would own the right and freedom to exist without fear of being shot in public from sea to shining sea.
Even though we have not yet attained the nation’s highest ideals, I fly the American flag because it evokes them—democracy, rights, liberty, opportunity, and equality. When I decided to fly an American flag at my house, I wanted to abide by the rules of the U.S. Flag Code. I fly the flag continuously and properly illuminate it at night. There are other rules, and most of us know them, like the flag should never touch the ground or anything beneath it. I didn’t know the preferred way of disposing of a worn-out flag was to burn it. I’ve always associated burning the flag with protests that arise when its ideals fail to manifest, when democracy falters, when rights and liberties are denied, when opportunity and equality don’t exist. When protesters burn the flag, it functions as a conflict symbol, its desecration inflaming differences between factions who value the flag differently.
The odd thing about the value of the American flag is that capitalism desecrates it in every possible way. According to the U.S. Flag Code Section 8i., the flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever. The Code lists a slew of items that the flag should not be used for, including apparel, bedding, drapery, cushions, or handkerchiefs, and it is not to be printed on paper napkins, boxes, or anything designed for temporary use and discard. Fourth of July paper plates, anyone? American flag iconography is ubiquitous in the marketplace; it can be found on products as various as guns, jockey shorts, and cigarette lighters, not to mention condoms, garbage bags, bikinis, and flip-flops. Capitalism absorbs the American flag and excretes it in various forms: as a taunt, a threat, a joke, a fashion statement, the symbol retaining power but also becoming meaningless due to its diffusion. We don’t flinch when barbecue sauce desecrates our holiday paper plates or when we toss them in the trash can.
By the opposite token, when someone refuses to pledge allegiance to the flag or burns the flag in protest, its desecration is often viewed as the highest treason. Flag-burning protestors are accused of “hating” America, while flag-bearing protesters sometimes use it as a weapon. At an anti-desegregation demonstration in 1976 in Boston, a white teen holding a huge American flag charged a Black man while using the flagpole like a spear; the attack was captured in a photograph that appears in the series, Fiasco: The Battle for Boston, hosted by Leon Neyfakh. Given our nation’s history of slavery, violence against Blacks, and systemic oppression, it’s not hard to see the American flag as an embodied lie, a symbol of promises that have never been kept.
Maybe the American flag is ruined, between capitalism and historical facts. But if I gave up on flying it, it would feel like giving up on too much. The radical freedoms that are my right, and every citizen’s right, are the spirit of the American flag today. You can turn it into a cocktail napkin or set it on fire, and still the ideals that the flag stands for remain as important guides in our present moment, at least for me. I’d like to acknowledge that our present moment is a nightmare: pandemic, overt racist violence and mayhem, and all known ice caps melting as the sixth great extinction gets underway. Flying the flag makes me feel just a little bit better. That’s why I keep it in the spotlight.