Flag symbolism is complex

In the last few issues of the Guardian, I have noticed a debate on the display of flags following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. It started with a column by Bertrand Fan, in which he looked at the new trend as, essentially, a condemnable form of posing. It continued with a reply from Jessica Long on Oct. 15, in which she saw the habit as a manifestation of pride in this “”great country”” (a very stereotypical expression these days).

I believe that things are more complex than the two writers describe. Posturing, dumb conformity, cheap sentimentalism and similar motives may explain some of the flags out there, but not all of them. I have seen flags, at least, displayed by people whose aversion to the previous motives is proven beyond any doubt.

There is no doubt that many Americans believe they live in a great country, but to reduce the massive display of national flags to this sentiment would be an oversimplification.

French people, for instance, have a very strong national sense and believe they live in a great country. Yet this belief never resulted in a massive exhibition of French flags on cars or apartment windows, a practice that would provoke puzzlement and hilarity on the streets of Paris.

The different attitude toward these acts of what we might call “”symbolic patriotism”” — in the sense of expressing patriotism through the use of symbols — reveals a difference between the American national sentiment and that of other countries in the world. I believe this is due to the different circumstances in which people became citizens of these countries.

For a French person — or English, or German and so on — the fact of being born French does not entail choice, whether personal or ancestral. France, in a sense, just happened to the French people.

Americans are different. With the exception of Native Americans, who were already here, and African-Americans, who were brought here by force, the decision of being American was consciously and purposely made by some member of the family not too long ago (let us say, for most people, in the last 150 years).

The ancestral memory of this decision is still very much alive: Most Americans can tell you from which country their family came. In an oblique way, such a statement also highlights the decision the family made, at one time, to become Americans.

At the time, this choice was cast in symbols because people coming from various countries in the world, leaving behind in many cases extreme poverty, needed something to identify themselves with their new country. Symbols like the flag served a powerful function in this sense, and I do not think I am completely wrong if I see in this circumstance the origin of the curious American fascination with symbols.

Symbols are so important that when reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, one does not promise to be faithful to the president, Congress or the government, but only to the flag of the United States. The pledge of allegiance is essentially saying: “”My family made a good choice by deciding to become American, and I am going to stick with it.””

The peculiar American national sentiment is also responsible for certain expressions, such as, “”I am proud to be an American.””

On one hand, this expression is typically American: I would assume that most Italians, Danes or Spaniards are just as happy to be Italians, Danes or Spaniards as Americans are to be Americans. But, by and large, those other groups do not feel any compelling need to let anybody know that they are.

On the other hand, the sentence itself is rather peculiar: Why should one be proud to be an American? Apart from the fact that pride is one of the seven deadly sins and, therefore, that a good person should not be proud of anything, anybody who was born in this country did not really do anything to be an American. So, what is there to be proud of?

The answer, I think, is again to be traced to this “”ancestral choice.”” One can be proud to be an American if one chose to be one and wants to reiterate that he made the right choice. It is this choice, made in the past but very present in the American national consciousness, that forms the sentimental underpinning of the expression, “”proud to be an American.””

This should also imply that the basic requirement for being a good American is to want to be one — a statement quite incompatible with the national feelings about immigration, but that is a subject for a different article.

The national flag, patriotic pride and the Pledge of Allegiance are part of the symbolic apparatus that has eased the choice of being an American in the past, and it is only natural that most Americans will feel the need to use this apparatus every time they want to reiterate this choice.

For all these reasons, I looked with a certain benevolence upon the flurry of flags that suddenly appeared after Sept. 11, at least for the first couple of weeks. Sure, most of these displays were naive, some of them were quite tacky, and some in outright bad taste — when, for instance, flags were pasted over car windows, creating a traffic hazard (remember, kids: Don’t flag and drive).

I read these gestures, however, as a further symbolic confirmation of the decision to become American. Although I would not use such a blunt symbolic instrument in order to express my condemnation of terrorism, I accepted it as a natural renovation of people’s decision in the face of a difficult time for the United States.

Things changed completely once American planes started bombing Afghanistan. I see no justification whatsoever for displaying a flag as a celebration of the fact that one’s country is killing people. And, in order to avoid confusion, I would like to make a distinction between believing that the attack was necessary and celebrating it.

Many people think the attack was necessary, and some people think the unavoidable civilian casualties are a tough but justified price to pay. Some believed that the attack could go on without civilian casualties: These people live on a different planet than you and I, and we do not need to worry about them.

By and large, I disagree with these opinions, but I can understand the reasons behind their support.

Displaying a flag in the last weeks, however, is different. It means celebrating the attack, and celebrating the fact that Afghani people are dying. No military attack, however necessary one thinks it may be, and however justified one may consider it, should be celebrated. Celebrating the death of people we do not know and understand is not different from the celebrations in some Arab countries after Sept. 11 that we all condemned — and rightfully so.

We must not fall in the trap of celebrating the death of human beings. We should not transform a national flag from a symbol of one’s choice and of national unity to a blindfold that will make us accept everything done in its name.

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