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 blind. It even has its own day. All to itself.
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 Union Jack 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 and merchandising kiosk .
So 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.
But in America of course there are two national flags, and the fuss this week has been about the Confederate Flag, the Southern miscegenistic sister of the Stars and Stripes. The Confederate flag has always been something that liberal east coasters have always found slightly unsettling and this week it has become the centre of opprobrium with it being removed from the State Capitol of Alabama and Walmart, Amazon, Sears and EBay all vying with each other to be first to ditch the tainted merchandise.
What does it represent that is so vile? Well, many in the States see it and other Confederate symbols as a cover for various unpopular political issues that find a resonance in the South that they do not in the north. Issues like those of White Supremacy, and a lingering resentment of the withdrawal of Jim Crow laws and 1960’s apartheid. It is also a constant reminder that the States still even after 150 years, and an almost continual expansion, divide North and South.
Many in the South cling to these symbols as a token of their heritage and of their once glorious past (more glorious of course with each passing year). They see it as proof that even after defeat in the Civil War they retained their own distinct society, their own agendas undiluted by an uncaring expansionist north. A political shout-out for States rights over Federal Power, a rallying point for the “rebel” – the real American even yet. The poorer and the whiter they are, the stronger they hold to these Blood and Honour symbols, as slowly inexorably every year they are economically overtaken, politically side-lined.
Will the northern elite liberals succeed? I doubt it, if for no other reason that the First Amendment will provide the Battle Flag of the Confederacy will all the legal protection it and its supporters need. Add to that the political truth that what these states do not need right now is for a whole bunch of out-of-state bandwagon jumpers to pile in and tell them “how”. In this political year the candidates led by Jeb Bush have all stuck in their two cents-worth. Jeb started it off calling vaguely that people should “do the right thing” without defining what that thing might be. The political peloton was not far behind with Bobby Jindal, John Kasich (who you say?) Chris Christie and Scott Walker all supporting some form of removal of the flag from public spaces. Kasich, Ohio’s governor, even attempted a vain reprise of Ronnie Reagan at the Berlin Wall crying out that “This flag should come down”. Kasich you aint no Ronnie Reagan.
It’s still a circus. Flags, and mocking poor white in the South for their heritage is an issue so much easier to have a stance on than oh say gun control which might actually have been of some real actual help to those poor people at that Bible Meeting last week. The entire flag issue will be over by the end of the summer.
Copyright David Macadam 2015