Stars and stripes a ubiquitous symbol in patriotic American life
AMERICA:American flag-waving patriotism reaches its peak on Memorial Day and Independence Day, writes LARA MARLOWE
THE AUDIENCE at the Wolf Trap amphitheatre, in the Virginia countryside near Washington DC, rose in unison, placed their right hands over their hearts and sang along as “the president’s own” Marine Corps Band played the Star Spangled Banner.
Then a giant flag, all 13 stripes and 50 stars, unfurled from above the stage. You would have thought someone had dropped a naked woman into a frat house. The crowd went wild, cheering, screaming, delirious.
The stars and stripes are a ubiquitous symbol in American life, but the flag-waving reaches its paroxysm on Memorial Day, May 31st, which honours those killed in war, and on July 4th.
Last weekend, kilometres of bunting festooned the shopping mall at Pentagon City, the perfect marriage of capitalism and patriotism.
Hundreds of Vietnam veterans with flags fluttering from their Harley-Davidsons roared through the capital, to remind their compatriots of those who were taken prisoner or went missing in action. “Jane Fonda American Traitor Bitch” said the badges pinned to their leather jackets.
Every American school child learns this song, commemorating the first flag in 1776:
“Said Washington to Betsy Ross, a flag our nation needs
“To lead our valiant soldiers on to high and noble deeds . . .”
Since the civil war, every classroom has started the day with the pledge of allegiance to the flag.
“In most European countries,” notes Prof Philip Golub of the University of Paris, “extreme, overt displays of nationalism tend to be confined to the far right.”
Dr Golub, who is American, has just published Power, Profit Prestige; A History of American Imperial Expansion,which examines the origins of US nationalism.
“Historical catastrophe” – two world wars in 30 years – “explains the social reluctance in Europe to express nationalist feelings or even strongly patriotic feelings in an overt and self-conscious way,” Dr Golub says.
Americans do not feel similar restraint, because their experience of the disasters spawned by nationalism has been least direct, and because of ideology.
“Historically speaking, there is a very strong and ingrained sense of American exceptionalism that has been fed by historical mythologies and fuelled by political leadership, that reasserts itself constantly and which proclaims that the US is different from, higher than, greater than other nations and is a nation with a providential and destined historical trajectory,” Dr Golub says.
In the 19th century, belief in the US’s “manifest destiny” to expand to the south and west permeated US society. Today, no politician can stand for public office without declaring that America is the greatest country on Earth.
I was struck to see only one African-American family at the concert at Wolf Trap. The attempt to understand why led me to the 1841 Independence Day speech by the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
To the American slave, July 4th was “a day that reveals . . .the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim”, Douglass said.
African-Americans have fought in all American wars, although the armed forces were racially segregated until the 1950s, says Peniel Joseph, professor of history at Tufts University.
“Blacks ARE very patriotic,” he insists, “but their patriotism envisions a multicultural, multi- racial America which has been at odds with other visions.”
The flag has denoted “competing definitions of what American democracy means”, Dr Joseph continues. Jimi Hendrix played an astonishing rock-and- roll Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock in 1969.
Hendrix and the protesters who burned flags against the Vietnam War “were telling the federal government, LBJ, then Richard Nixon, that they saw through the myth of American exceptionalism, the belief that America always does the right thing”, Dr Joseph explains.
Right-wing workers who beat up student protesters in Manhattan in May 1970 carried flags from their construction sites. Over subsequent decades, the flag embodied Reagan conservatism, then neo-conservatism and fundamentalist Christianity.
The atrocities of September 11th, 2001, broadened and strengthened Americans’ attachment to their flag. US flags worth $34.8 million, most of them made in China, had to be imported in the month that followed to meet demand.
An elderly Irish woman tells me how uncomfortable she felt at a concert in Boston last month, similar to the one I attended at Wolf Trap. She didn’t put her hand over her heart, sing or cheer for the flag.
“The next day, a woman stopped me in the street and said, ‘I saw you at the concert last night’. I’d been noticed,” she says.
After September 11th, says Prof Joseph, “the flag became a kind of tool for jingoistic solidarity, for beating the war drum. Senators, congressmen, everyone has to wear an American flag in their lapel.
“People who don’t wear it are suspect, which is obviously against the whole point of freedom of speech and the democracy that the flag is supposed to represent.”
US president Barack Obama fell foul of this hyper-patriotism during the 2008 campaign.
“He refused to be in lock-step with that kind of mob mentality,” says Prof Joseph. But when veterans who supported Obama told him they would like to see him wear the flag, he relented. Now the flag features permanently in the presidential lapel.