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Why I Hang the American Flag

By Oliver S. York, Contributing Opinion Writer

By California standards, I’ve gone comically overboard with the American flag. I’ve got my hat and my socks, my tie and my lapel pin, and a six-footer hanging in my room. In many parts of the country, that’s normal, but here at home, I’m inviting mockery. My friends are bewildered: how could a young liberal like me, proud of his “San Francisco values,” possibly hang such a symbol in the “America First” era of nearly everything I stand against?

It’s easy to understand why liberals have negative connotations for the American flag, because it has become a favorite symbol of conservative politicians. This president treats the flag like a political security blanket — an image made literal by a goofy photo of him hugging a flagpole at the Conservative Political Action Conference in March.

I’ve gone overboard with the flag because I’m convinced that those of us on the left need to reframe our national pride in terms that the rest of the country can understand. Democrats have surrendered more than just the stars and stripes. They’ve also surrendered the word “patriotism.” A FiveThirtyEight report — published in July 2018 — found that, while the majority of Democrats consider themselves “extremely” or “very proud to be Americans,” only 29 percent consider themselves “very patriotic.” This reticence among Democrats to embrace such apparently nonpartisan stamps of national pride as Old Glory and the word “patriotism” presents two challenges and an opportunity.

The first challenge is simply political. We’re proud Americans, but we’re not conveying that energy in a language that everyday voters on the other side of the aisle can understand. Adopting the flag can help us win more fights in the court of public opinion by reassuring all of our fellow Americans that we are equally driven to make America as good as it can be.

Don’t forget that as Harvard students we’re already suspect: By virtue of our educational opportunity, we are the “elite” so vilified by this president. If we reject the flag, we invite further criticism. Displaying the flag, on the other hand, can help establish our patriotic bona fides.

The second challenge is more grave: A lack of visible patriotism may jeopardize our personal safety. Today’s Beltway lingo conflates “unpatriotic” with “un-American” — an acute risk in the current “America First” climate. This became clear in the last two weeks as Trump attacked a group of four female congresswomen for criticizing his policies, relying on crude jingoistic language to brand them as unpatriotic. Following the attacks, these congresswomen received death threats.

Like the members of Congress marked for presidential bullying, many young people have been critical of the Trump administration. Sure, we’ve voted and called our representatives, but we’ve also been on the streets to protest this president’s repeated moral failings. We have to be mindful that these peaceful actions are now dangerous: if we allow ourselves to be labeled as unpatriotic, we stand to lose both our politically-determined right to have rights and our right to civil liberties.

Finally, there’s a more constructive reason for us to reconsider our relationship with the American flag. We have an opportunity to reclaim the flag, to re-appropriate it, and to redefine it. We’re college students, young, somewhat more idealistic than our parents, and ready to dream. Attack ads in the Georgia special election derided my “San Francisco values.” We can use the hanging of Old Glory as an excuse to have a thoughtful conversation about those values — and about how they’re a perfectly valid expression of American, and yes, patriotic, ideals.

I want us to reclaim the flag and reclaim patriotism, separating the pride of what our nation can be from the jingoism of Trump’s security blanket. I want us to redefine the American flag as representing the promise — as of yet unrealized — of a society where everyone in our community can be a civic actor, regardless of citizenship, identity, or age. To be a civic actor is to engage in critique. And, as much as we might like to joke about the coasts seceding from the rest of the country, I want the flag to remind us of the responsibility we have to listen and engage with thoughtful, compassionate people from different parts of the country, and of their responsibility to do the same with us.

American pride is for all of us. Even if we diverge in the way we talk about our values, we simply cannot let one political party own patriotism. It’s already deeply disappointing that the right seems to have a lock on “family values” and that the left “owns” LGBTQ rights. Our first line of defense should be to bring the stars and stripes back onto neutral ground. And if, in doing so, we can excavate the true meaning of patriotism, so much the better.

Oliver S. York ’21 is an Economics concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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