It’s the fifth of July, and it’s early. I’m alone on a dirt road in the mountains, climbing.
The American flag dominates my thoughts, three archetypes rising from somewhere deep.
The angry flag
In 2003, I marched down Massachusetts Avenue in Boston, one among 50,000 protesting the invasion of Iraq.
A steelworker stood tall on a flatbed truck. He thrust a flag back and forth, cutting the air with anger. His message was clear, loud and determined, one standing strong against a tide of thousands. America: Love it or leave it.
So righteous and simple. So tribal and powerful. So limited.
The masses chant about this being “what democracy looks like.” I’m not so sure.
The absent flag
Throughout my 20s and 30s, the American flag makes almost no appearances. It is not posted proudly outside the homes of friends or acquaintances. It is not pinned to my workplace walls. Its visage is only glimpsed at a distance and perhaps absently saluted between beers at a game.
To be clear, the flag didn’t leave me – I left her, for a while. It was a gradual split, painful. My young adult eyes gazed on her checkered and ambiguous past the way a motorist stares at roadside carnage. I felt betrayed, my innocence lost. And though the betrayal was inevitable, it left me feeling crestfallen and alone all the same.
It’s 1996, the year I became an Eagle Scout. At a ceremony marking the event, I’m presented with a 4-by-6-foot American flag that was flown over the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor.
I package it neatly away in a box where it sits for 18 years. Waiting.
This Sunday past, I emerged from the crawl space with my flag in hand.
The time has come for me to reconcile with this symbol of America. To once again embrace the flag, this time in full knowledge of the atrocities that were paired with our every greatness.
The feeling is more complex and nuanced, but I hope more mature. Yes, America failed to live up to my boyhood ideals, but then again – so did everything else.
Like it or not – nation-states are the vehicles of geopolitics. While an Earth flag would be welcome to fly side-by-side with my stars and stripes – American democracy is my primary responsibility. It is the vehicle over which I am afforded some small degree of influence – and I must use that influence to help do more good in the world, at home and abroad.
To do that effectively, I think it is incumbent on us to embrace the flag in all its complexity. Influence born of scorn is rarely effective and never well received.
As I close this column, I hold my Old Glory careful in my arms. This symbol – this history – is heavier than its material embodiment. But as someone born in a country that affords great – if not perfect – freedoms and opportunity, I don’t begrudge its weight. I hold my flag up willingly, lovingly and with a commitment to work tirelessly in pursuit of the great promise of America.
email@example.com. Dan Olson is executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.