Of stars and stripes

This is a story about a famous flag; one that has flown, in one form or another, for something like 200 years. It is instantly recognizable wherever it is raised – on every continent, in every region, in every city in whole world. And to everyone who sees it, it means something. That’s not to say that it has a clear or a fixed message, but that when you see it your eyes don’t resolve it as a mere collection of colored stripes and white stars: it carries a message as effectively as any word written on this page. It doesn’t mean one thing, it means something. And for a growing number, that something is hatred. But there was a time some years ago when that meaning was very different and more clear. In simple terms it stood for liberty, democracy and peace, but more than that, it was a complicated expression of an ideal of what things good government and good people do. It was welcomed because the people who flew it had done many great things: they helped push the Nazis out of Europe, established organizations like the Peace Corps, and brought the ideals of democracy and liberty to the modern world. And they welcomed, with open arms, “the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” That flag represented a constitution which guaranteed certain rights to its citizens, and proclaimed those same rights as the property of all men no matter their nation. It represented an ideal of respect for all men and women and cultures. Today, the people of that same country are inheriting a much different legacy. They are becoming known as tyrants, imperialists and enemies of liberty. They fear and turn away those who come seeking the same opportunity and freedom that enticed their forefathers to risk life and limb to come to this land. That flag is being carried into battle, not over the forces of so-called virtue and freedom, but above the heads of the invading army. It is being flown above prisons where “enemy combatants” are tortured, held without trial and denied basic human rights. And it is being touted as a justification for countless acts of evil. That country has forgotten something. Its forgotten that that flag was not beautiful because of some sort of self-evident virtue of its design. The reverence paid to it wasn’t woven of cloth, but of an uncompromising commitment to good. It is, or was, beautiful because it represented certain unwavering ideals and because those who raised it practiced those ideals. But that has been lost. Today, it is affixed to things which run contrary to the things for which it once stood. It is no longer a symbol, but an ever-cheaper commodity. It is a lapel pin. It is an accessory for a car. It is a colorful backdrop for a cable news broadcast. It is being held up by men who do not commit themselves to the things for which it once stood, but who are of the opinion that the flag is in-and-of-it?self important. But a flag never does the things for which a nation’s people are proud, and by which other nations, for better or worse, judge them: A flag does not spread democracy or freedom; It does not help those in need; It does not convene a legislative body and make laws. In other words, a flag is not something to defend. But its principles, or rather those that it stand for, are. The principles of the American flag can be found in such things as liberty, equality, fraternity, and peace. They are found in the mindset that there are rights which belong to all men by virtue of their humanity, and which cannot be stolen in the name of safety. Those who raise the flag in justification of torture, encroachment upon privacy, and the destruction of freedom in the name of defense betray the meaning that lies hidden behind the stars and stripes, and for which this country exists to protect. They do not deserve to wave that flag.