The flag is the most powerful symbol of patriotism for any country, and especially for the United States because the American flag is recognizable anywhere. With its stars and stripes speaking about the history of the nation, the flag sums up what it means to be an American. Therefore, when a person looks at the flag or flies one in their yard or from their car, the person is saying, “I am proud to be an American.” The flag equals patriotism. At the same time, the flag means whatever the individual wants it to mean. A person can burn the flag at a political protest to show disgust or disappointment with American policy. or, as Barbara Kingsolver explains, the American flag can be used for political reasons such as to symbolize the war on terror. Because the American flag can mean anything the person wants it to mean, it remains the most important and most flexible national symbols. The flag can represent proud patriotism or it can represent anger and the need for change.
In her essay “And our Flag was Still There,” Kingsolver claims “Our nation was established with a fight for independence, so our iconography grew out of war.” Kingsolver suggests that the flag has been associated more with war, violence, hatred, and death than with positive values like freedom and liberty. The flag also represents something different for people not born in the United States than it means for American citizens. Like any flag of any country, the American flag is most meaningful to the people who pledge to it. Yet many American citizens were not born in the country and have roots in other countries with different flags. The American flag is just one of many for most people in the world. For Americans, the flag is like a religious icon. As an icon, the flag represents essential parts of the American myth such as “liberty and justice for all” or “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The phrase “liberty and justice for all” is from the “Pledge of Allegiance,” which is said by school children almost as if it were a religious prayer. Therefore, young children learn to almost worship the American flag. It is much more than just a piece of cloth.
The American flag has become bigger than just the flag of one of the world’s nations, however. Unlike most other flags of the world, the American flag is recognizable everywhere. The American flag for non-Americans just as it means different things for Americans. Americans are taught many myths about the history and culture of the country. For example, Americans are taught that Manifest Destiny is a God-given right. The myth of Manifest Destiny is what is responsible for the campaigns against the Native Americans because the idea gave early settlers the justification they needed to expand into Western territories. The flag represents the myth of Manifest Destiny because the number of stars on the flag has changed depending on how many states were within the country. As more and more territories were turned into states, the flag’s stars grew and grew. Therefore, the flag literally proves that Americans believe that it was their destiny to expand across the continent. The original thirteen colonies are symbolized by the thirteen stripes, but the number of stars has changed several times throughout history (Streufert 1994).
Another myth that the flag embodies is the myth of freedom. The idea that citizens should be able to do whatever they want without government intervention is a very American one. Freedom is the essence of the American image since the nation declared independence from Great Britain. After that, freedoms were written into the American Constitution. The Constitution is another aspect of American political life that is symbolized by the flag. The flag represents the Bill of Rights: the laws that protect most American citizens. History has shown that not all Americans have enjoyed rights and freedoms. Women and people of color have been deprived of their rights until relatively recently. In the past, women have proudly flown the flag even if they could not vote. African-Americans fought in wars to defend the American flag even though black children were not allowed to attend the same schools as white children. As Margaret Atwood points out, Americans have as much to be ashamed of as to be proud of.
When Barbara Kingsolver claims “The values we fought for and won there are best understood, I think, by oil companies,” she refers to the way the American flag has been distorted. The issues the flag symbolizes, such as freedom and liberty, are myths for many people. As Kingsolver points out, the American flag has been used to justify many like Vietnam and Iraq. Instead of delivering true freedom, liberty, and democracy, the American flag really brought economic dependence. Instead of associating the American flag with negativity, death, and intimidation, Kingsolver suggests that Americans reclaim it. The red stripes do not need to symbolize war. They can also symbolize “blood donated to the Red Cross.”
The American flag is a flexible symbol that is often used in ways that manipulate the public. The flag is therefore like a propaganda tool. It can mean whatever the American people believe it to mean. The American flag has been used in many unconventional ways. At Woodstock, a famous photograph shows a couple with the American flag wrapped around them like a blanket. The flag means love and peace in this case, as well as freedom. When people burn the American flag, they are making a powerful political statement too. Burning the flag usually means some kind of hatred for what the United States stands for. After President Bush invaded Iraq, many people in the Middle East burned the American flag in protest. The American flag is sometimes burned at political protests in the United States, too. Protesting against war is one of the for the flag as a symbol.
The American flag is used in many commercial settings too. For example, some packaging has American flag images and the flag is often worn on sports jerseys. In those cases, the flag means patriotism and pride. The flag can be used to distinguish American athletes at the Olympics or at any other global competition. American flags might be used abroad to show what language or currency is being used. Sometimes the American flag is meaningless, such as when it is used as decoration or in ways that are not political at all.
However, people who wear a flag on their clothing are usually making a statement that they are proud to be Americans. The flag is the ultimate sign of being patriotic. The American flag also symbolizes the rich history of the country from the time the colonies won the War of Independence until the expansion westward. That history is filled with myths about Manifest Destiny and the American Dream. The American flag symbolizes freedom from oppressive forms of government, which is one of the most important American ideals. Even if American citizens are discontent with their government, the government is still a democracy.
However, the American flag does suggest some of the cultural myths that guide American society. When children pledge allegiance to the flag in school, they are taught many myths about American history and culture. Children are taught that all citizens can achieve the American Dream. In fact, many Americans cannot achieve their financial or career goals. The flag represents the myth that all Americans are equal. In fact, not all Americans are equal. The American flag is most of all an ideal. The flag symbolizes the best of what American culture strives to be. Freedom, liberty, and justice for all are only myths until they become realities.
Atwood, Margaret. “A Letter to America.” Published on Friday, April 4, 2003 by the International Herald Tribune. Retrieved July 29, 2008 at http://www.commondreams.org/views03/0404-07.htm
Kingsolver, Barbara. “And Our Flag Was Still There.” Published on Tuesday, September 25, 2001 in the San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved July 29, 2008 from Common Dreams at http://www.commondreams.org/views01/0925-08.htm
Streufert, Duane. “Evolution of the United States Flag.” Evolution of the United States Flag. Retrieved July 29, 2008 at http://www.usflag.org/history/flagevolution.html