I still remember a dream I had when I was about five years old. In the dream, I was floating in the sky, and I came upon a cloud, white and fluffy, with an American Flag somehow planted in it. Seeing the flag confirmed in my mind that I was in fact in Heaven.
That was about fifty five years ago now and I’m struck by how powerful, even at that early age, the image of the stars and stripes was. These days the flag and its meaning are being debated, as links between sports and politics have blurred, and the right to protest the flag is being questioned.
To those who say politics don’t have any place on a football or baseball field or basketball court, answer this one question: why does every sporting event, from high school on up, start with saluting the flag and singing the anthem, if politics have no place there? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to these things. It’s just that the flag is a symbol, a very powerful symbol that evokes strong, politically charged responses in everyone in attendance. But why are they even a part of the event? We don’t play the anthem and salute the flag in a movie theatre, for example.
Inserting the flag into an event instantly politicizes that event. Taking a knee or clenching arms or raising a fist to the flag does not disrespect the flag, rather, it strengthens what the flag really stands for.
One of the things that always set us apart from extremists in other cultures was that in America, we hold principals in higher regard than symbols. No one is supposed to suffer punishment in America for drawing a cartoon, for example. Or for, no matter how repellent the sight might be, burning an American flag. It’s our constitutional right to free speech that we obey, as well as it’s the right of others to decry such activities. But we don’t have the right to discriminate against those we disagree with.
In America, we are allowed, even encouraged, to think for ourselves. So when we see our flag, it’s only natural, and downright patriotic, for different people to think different things. Imagine if we were all forced to think the same way –imagine the ramifications of that. Who would decide what we have to conform to? Or what the punishment would be if our thoughts strayed?
There’s no denying the strength of the flag as a symbol. I understand the power of the meaning it has, especially to our military. But to truly appreciate the complexity as well as the power of the symbol is a bit more difficult. If you want an idea of how, even among the military, the flag can have different symbolic meanings, all you need do is google Ira Hayes.
Hayes’ experiences after returning home from World War II, where he was one of the marines who famously rose the flag at Iwo Jima, add a level of complexity to the simplistic symbol of the flag. This is inevitable with symbols – the more they are universally embraced, the simpler their meaning becomes, despite the fact that symbols are by nature inherently complex.
What makes the flag such a complex thing is part of the very foundation our country was built upon: liberty, freedom and justice for all. It’s the great American experiment, and it’s what sets us apart from every other country in history: that we are guaranteed the right to say what we want, think what we want, worship whatever god we choose. All men are created equal and self-evident truths and inalienable rights. It was all incredibly audacious and radical and idealistic, and the flag came to symbolize every bit of it – all of the purity and sincerity of those ideals, as well as all the times we fell short – because only if we recognize battles lost and not just celebrate those won will we ever rise up to the lofty heights our founding fathers envisioned us one day approaching. I think they probably knew we’d never reach them all, that that would be impossible, but hoped that we’d fight with every breath in our resolve to at least try.
That’s the fight and the struggle that the flag is symbolic of. It flies as high as the surface of the moon, but we still have a way to go before we reach the unreachable, until we plant it in the fluffy clouds of a child’s dream of Heaven.