We just celebrated our 240th birthday and whether you know her as “Old Glory,” the “Star Spangled Banner,” or only by her nickname—“The Red, White, and Blue”—it’s as good a time as any to give some thought to our grand old flag. Fifty white stars—one for each state—on a field of heavenly blue; thirteen red and white stripes for the original colonies: by any standard, it’s an iconic motif for a country still in the throes of inventing itself.
We really do like to see it wave. Whether at the Olympics, or over Arlington Cemetery, or atop the Capitol and above every small town square across America, our flag is the one common symbol flying over our increasingly effervescent national unity. I don’t mean this in any jingoistic or xenophobic sense; I just mean it covers common ground. After all, we still pledge allegiance to it, hands over hearts, or sing its praises before games, so there must be something in it that transcends our myriad differences. As far as I know, it’s a color-blind flag that doesn’t discriminate on any identifiable basis—not race, not ethnicity, not religion, and not sexual orientation. In fact (or so I believe), it does just the opposite by representing the strength that comes with diversity. “E pluribus unum:” out of many, one.
It is a sad, sad truth that many men and women have given their lives for our flag. I doubt our flag considers any ultimate sacrifice a worthy one, but yet from time-to-time, such is the price we’ve had to pay for the gifts we’ve been given. That’s when the stars become tears and the stripes remind us that blood is blood, no matter from whom it flows.
In this election year, candidates of every political stripe and persuasion will feel compelled to wear the flag on their sleeve or lapel. I’m skeptical of that: it has become a facile fashion statement that trivializes true patriotism. These days, I don’t hear people asking about what we can do for our country; I only hear the strident discord that comes when we put ourselves above the common good.
My father served in World War II and when he died in 1987, my family received a flag that had flown over the Capitol in Washington. To this day, some good soul puts a small flag next to his grave on Memorial Day. It’s an honor owed to all veterans, in fact to anyone who has been called or has chosen to serve our country or to act for the common good. Those are the flags that mean the most to me, the ones that recall the better angels of our nature, not the vitriol of the times.
When in the course of human events it becomes necessary to rediscover the good in ourselves and our national symbols, let’s start with the flag. The breeze that ripples it today doesn’t separate us, it embraces all of us. It would be good to remember that in July before the November gales begin to blow.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. “A Place to Stand,” a book of his photographs, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015. He is currently working on a collection of stories called “Musing Right Along.”