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God Save the… Flag
Reflections on celebrating moments of national patriotism
A couple of weeks ago, as Britons and the world celebrated the diamond jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, I was smugly perplexed. I didn’t understand how a nation that prides itself on being so enlightened, so secular, and so civilized could buy into the hoopla surrounding royalty, monarchy, and rule by heredity. As a good American, and a native Bostonian, I know it is my duty to scorn all things royal, so I realized my views weren’t exactly without prejudice.
After reading and watching some of the coverage, the phenomenon became a bit clearer to me. It seems that those standing out in the chilly London rain to watch Elizabeth and her family float down the river aren’t celebrating her, per se, or even the monarchy itself, but instead taking pride in their nation and in an ancient institution that is called to live out a people’s collective values and present them to the world. Idolizing Elizabeth and her family is not a political statement, it seems, but a way to celebrate Great Britain and all that that nation has contributed to civilization.
Rallying around national leaders
In the United States, today is Flag Day, a minor holiday that commemorates the adoption of the U.S. flag in 1777 and a date that also serves as the birthday of the U.S. Army. While you probably won’t see an abundance of flags flying today, in just a couple of weeks we will celebrate Independence Day, replete with fireworks, parades, concerts, patriotic hymns, and cookouts and beer. I think the Fourth is perhaps the closest we’ll get to any national day of unbridled patriotism, almost on par with the celebrations in London.
In the U.S. presidency we have both our head of state and head of government. In many countries, these two roles are divided. In the UK, the queen is the head of state while the prime minister leads the government. Even in countries that have thrown off the strictures of royal rule, there is often a difference. Ireland elects both a president and a prime minister; Germany chooses a president and a chancellor. While not quite free from all controversial responsibilities, heads of states serving in a nation that also has a separate head of government occupy largely ceremonial positions, allowing citizens of all stripes to respect and revere the office rather than the individual.
Here, with a populace so divided, it is inconceivable that in ordinary time the president would be viewed with pride as an ambassador of American values. In my young life, the only time I remember the nation collectively rallying around the president, regardless of party or ideology, was immediately following the September 11th attacks in 2001. President Bush’s stirring speech atop the pile of rubble in lower Manhattan, shouting words of encouragement into a bullhorn, is indelibly seared into my memory. My friends and I, not exactly natural allies of W., still recall this speech from time to time, remembering phrases and lines that offered hope to a frightened and shaken people and the feelings of unity during that dark time.
Pride of the flag
The Catholic blogger and writer Andrew Sullivan recently conversed (here and here) with some of his more liberal readers about their habits in displaying the American flag. There is a sense that conservatives and Republicans have co-opted the flag, and that to display it means one ascribes to a particular ideology or party. Many of his liberal readers affirmed this, but there were notable exceptions, individuals who said they would not cede the pride of the American flag to one side.
A while back I purchased a gray t-shirt with a dark gray American flag covering the front. I’m not one to deck myself out in red, white, and blue, but I liked the shirt, it was on sale, so I thought, why not? I started thinking a bit about wearing a flag, in an un-ironic and non-hispter way, and I decided that I was happy to show some subtle patriotism in my wardrobe. I’ve lived in Washington, D.C., the past few years, and even the most cynical of D.C. insiders must be moved once in awhile by a sunset coloring the Washington and Lincoln Monuments, by the beauty of the White House, or the grandeur of the U.S. Capitol. If the president is unable to serve as a national focal point, what does?
Last spring I was training for my first marathon, and I went for a long run along the National Mall. Springtime runs in D.C. mean two things: allergies and tourists. That day, the area near the Lincoln Memorial was jammed with tourists, but a single individual stuck out to me. I wrote about this experience over at America:
One afternoon, in front of the Lincoln Memorial, I was feeling particularly beat and was ready to be finished, in spite of the 10 miles or so left ahead of me. I was looking at the all the people milling about, taking snapshots and bickering with family, when I noticed a young guy, about my age, in a gray ARMY t-shirt. He was fit, attractive, and smiling. He was also in a wheelchair, missing both his legs and one arm. I was running, so I didn’t look long, but on the back on the chair was a sticker identifying him as a veteran of the Iraq War. Seeing this young guy, maimed forever by war and violence, sent a flood of emotion to head and heart. I had several more miles to reflect, and sometimes prayer feels trite, so I instead turned to silence. I turned off my music, and ran in silence, past war memorials and giddy groups of junior high students. I tried not to think of anything, but focused on getting one foot in front of the other. As I left behind the crowds and monuments, I was surrounded only by budding trees, the quiet river, and a focus on silence.
I’m a bit jealous of those who participated in celebrating the Queen’s diamond jubilee. There is something powerful and attractive about national moments of patriotism, and they are fairly rare here. But perhaps there are smaller moments, like the episode above, that can fill this gap and remind us that many of the values we hold as Americans are indeed worth celebrating.