A reader writes:
This post perfectly captures what I have been feeling lately but unable to pinpoint. As a church organist, I am responsible for picking all the music for any given service. Yesterday I chose "America" ("Oh beautiful, for spacious skies") for the people to sing. This is a very liberal church, and I consider myself a liberal person. Several people approached me afterwards to say they felt uncomfortable singing that hymn in church (although it's included in the Hymnal) because it was "jingoistic" or "nationalistic." I had never considered these opinions and was somewhat surprised, if not shocked. In my mind, that church wouldn't exist if it wasn't for the freedoms we have in America. I'm lucky to have traveled the world and seen a lot of countries, and appreciate more than ever what we have here.
Here's my story about liberals and the flag; or: "What my father taught me about patriotism." We are Jewish, from Brooklyn, and very liberal. My parents were New Deal Democrats, and worshipped FDR, JFK, and the Great Society. In 1968 and beyond, we opposed the war in Vietnam and supported anti-war candidates. During the Moratoriums and other anti-war protests in 1969, Nixon (whom we all despised – rightly, as it turned out) called upon the "Silent Majority" of Americans who supported him and the War to fly the flag on the upcoming holiday (I think it was Memorial Day, actually). Come Memorial Day, my liberal father hung out his American flag.
"But Dad," my then-teenaged sister, brother and I protested, "How can you do that? You're showing support for Nixon and the War!" "Let me tell you something," my father – who immigrated from Poland in 1929 at the age of 11, and had fought for the U.S. in North Africa, Italy and France – replied: "That's MY flag, too; and that bastard isn't going to take it away from me!"
I blame conservatives for politicising the flag. I blame liberals for letting them. And I credit the lesson of my father, unabashed liberal, critic – and patriot.
Your reader said, "It's just a fact that liberals are squeamish about showing their patriotism" and that liberals need to "take back" the flag. First, I didn't know that displaying the flag made you patriotic. That's kind of like saying wearing a cross around your neck makes you a Christian, or putting a yellow ribbon on your gas-guzzling SUV means you're concerned about the troops.
I am a liberal and I do not display the flag.
It isn't because I'm unpatriotic or not as patriotic as those who do display the flag. Nor is it because I am squeamish about showing my patriotism. I just don't believe that my patriotism is defined by my decision as to whether or not I display the flag.
Second, I think your reader is confusing liberals' alleged squeamishness about "showing their patriotism" with their squeamishness about the worst forms of nationalism being mistaken for patriotism. For example, I was in college when the Iraq war started. One day a huge debate about the war broke out in my physics class (of all places). After someone criticized the Bush administration's rush to war, one of my classmates sternly said, "Hey – if you can't root for the home team, get out of the stadium."
And that is the difference between patriotism and nationalism. I'm sure that woman had a flag and a yellow ribbon and considered herself to be among the most patriotic among us. I thought she was an idiot and didn't understand the first thing about patriotism.
While I agree on some level that people on the left should "take back" the flag in much the same way I think liberal Christians should take back the cross, I also don't believe that we should fall into the trap that the flag is what defines our patriotism. Our patriotism should be defined by our participation in government (beyond voting) and advancing our nation for the common good. Displaying the flag might make you feel good, but it doesn't make you a patriot.
(Photo: People participate in the annual Memorial Day Parade on May 28, 2012 in Fairfield, Connecticut. Across America towns and cities will be celebrating veterans of the United States Armed Forces and the sacrifices they have made. Memorial Day is a federal holiday in America and has been celebrated since the end of the Civil War. By Spencer Platt/Getty Images)