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It is not just post 9/11.  It was always there.  Ever since I first started travelling in the States way back in the eighties, it was one of the things that immediately told you that this was a very different place from Europe, and to those of us brought up on stories of pre-war Germany and the Nazis, a rather disturbing, distinctly unsettling fetish.

The American flag is ubiquitous, and everywhere.  It flutters at gas stations; hangs out of trees over roadways; is an essential part of estate agent’s furniture; stands officiously at the side of every clerk in the front office of every public building and informally on the desks of many others in the back office; on small and large boats tied up at marinas; on plastic sticks fixed to drivers’ windows; on cocktail sticks stuck into burger buns.  Children swear allegiance to it every school morning.  It is the flag of the cavalry in old westerns and the flag of their fathers in the Second World War.  It sits behind every President as his perpetual backdrop as he speaks to and for a nation.

Anyone who has had the slightest contact with the military will tell you how much store is set by badges, insignia, banners and flags.  The military, over the ages, has recognised the importance of symbols in building a sense of bonding and group identity from the days of the eagles of Rome to the star spangled banner.

It is one of the glues that hold the USA together, it is one of the ties that bind.

It has to be treated in a very special, almost ritualistic manner, and, this being America, there are rules.  The US Flag Code, came in during 1924 under Public Law 77-623; chapter 435. This is worth a read just for the sheer comprehensiveness of the rules, even if most are flagrantly broken, and none are enforceable in the courts.  It mustn’t get dirty.  Despite the fact that the flag is everywhere and on everything it should not be copied; it cannot be tattooed onto your body and it must never fall to the ground.  Most of all, it must not be burned in anger. This particular desecration amounts almost to a secular blasphemy.  To someone from Britain it seems especially peculiar as it often appears to us that British foreign policy is only ever being taken seriously when a ranting demagogic crowd simultaneously sets fire to the Union Jack whilst trying to stamp on it.

Our flag is invisible, save when it gets popped out of government buildings on a few set days of the year and then hurriedly hidden away again, or left to flap damply off the top of tourist sites to show the way to the ticket booth.

It all seems a little neurotic.

But there are reasons.  America is a truly huge country and geographically very varied.  From the homey New England temperate forests to the subtropical keys of Florida and the deserts of the south west, from the ice of Alaska to the islands in the Pacific it is a continental country.  With all
this diversity it might be easy to lose connection with people far away whose lifestyles are very different from your own.  I have met Floridians who, even as adults, have never seen snow.  I know Coloradoans who have not seen either of their country’s seaboards.  Many Americans never venture out of their own state far less go abroad, and in order to remind them of their country, of their nation, a flag is convenient shorthand.

I think we also forget how young America is.  Whilst all the razzamatazz directs our attention to the War of Independence in 1776, minutemen and Washington, we, and perhaps even Americans themselves forget that it is a nation that like Topsy grows and grows and only reached its present size as recently as 1959 when Hawaii and Alaska joined the Union.

In a nation that is younger than many of its inhabitants, we might also remember that no President has yet died under the same flag as he was born.

Copyright David Macadam 2011

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