Flags and posters

by Chris Bertram on April 1, 2004

My visit to the US was my first since 9/11 and, thankfully, the tonality of New York doesn’t seem to have changed all that much. I’m sure, though, that many foreign visitors are struck by the sheer number of US flags on display. This was less noticeable in Manhattan, but a drive around Brooklyn revealed many such flags on private houses. From a British point of view this is odd, since the union jack has been appropriated by the far right since forever and someone flying one on their house would be considered some kind of nut. But the US context is clearly different and I understand people’s need for such patriotic affirmation. More disturbing, though, was a poster about security I encountered at Newark (now renamed “Liberty”) airport. The poster assured travellers that various agencies were working to protect the security of “all Americans”. Very comforting, no doubt, if you happen to be one. It really is unimaginable that a similar poster at a British or European airport would speak of “all Britons” or “all Europeans” — it would seem weird and exclusionary. Such a poster would say “all passengers” or “all our customers” or some such.



Ghost of a flea 04.01.04 at 1:14 pm

I was struck by the number of Canadian flags on display when I moved back to Toronto after years of living in the UK. The giant flags at auto-dealerships struck me as almost creepy.


Justin Hart 04.01.04 at 1:36 pm

I am struck by the number of odd comments about flying the flag. Perhaps this is strictly an American thing… The US flag probably has more significance to their countryman than other countries. Here are just a few examples:

  • Susan B
  • National Anthem is all about the flag
  • Salutes and pledges
  • Ability to purchase a flag that has been flown over the Capitol
  • Rules and regulations over how to handle the flag
  • National Flag Day in June 14th
  • Making flag desecration a crime in some states
  • Dozens of poemsessays,  and songs about the flag.

My point is two-fold: 1) it should suprise no one that Americans revere the flag and 2) in my mind no one has qualified or articulated why it is wrong to do so. Since when did “flying a flag” become a symbol of facism?


Chris Bertram 04.01.04 at 1:42 pm

Just to forestall hostile comments on this (following Justin’s comment), I wrote in the post “But the US context is clearly different and I understand people’s need for such patriotic affirmation.”


des 04.01.04 at 1:50 pm

I am struck by the number of odd comments about flying the flag. Perhaps this is strictly an American thing.

It isn’t.

Scandewegians are mad crazy for a bit of the old flagpole action, although there is a protocol for when. There are several (double figures) days when the national flag _must_ be flown, by law, from every Latvian building, and there are special flag police who check and fine offenders. (Source for the latter: Deutsche Welle TV over Christmas.)

It’s the UK that’s anomalous, and the rehabilitation of the St George flag (of England) a couple of years ago for the world cup (in Proper Football) and the Queen’s golden jubilee made me wonder if there’d been a fasciste coup here for a while.

In my head I am currently proudly flying the flag of the late, lamented Free Territory of Trieste, but so far I don’t have a real one.


jchave 04.01.04 at 2:03 pm

Surely it is over the top to say that the Union Jack has been appropiated by the far right. I am sure more people would associate the flag with Reebocks and the Spice Girls. Indeed it is interesting and somewhat bizarre that the flag has become a wholly apolitical youth culture item in many parts of the world.

St George’s flag is however the chosen insignia of of e.g football hooliganism. If you saw someone flying the English flag outside their house, you would think ‘not just a nut, a fascist nut’.


Matthew 04.01.04 at 2:09 pm

I went to Newark a week earlier than you Chris and I was amused to see cameras to take certain visitors pictures, but otherwise I was amazed by how fast we got through customs. This was helped I suspect by a) arriving at 10pm and b) they put everyone, American and non-American in the same queue. Other times I’ve been in a non-American queue with about two immigration officials and 200 passengers.

I suspect the ‘all Americans’ is partly because the ratio of domestic to international passengers at US airports is that much higher.

I also from the BA inflight magazine managed to work out the passport/visa situation for Britons visiting America in the future, which some readers may find useful. From October 26th if you have either a very old passport (without a bar-code) or a very new one (issued from October 26th) you will need to get a visa until (from mid-2005 the goverment say) we can get biometric passports. Otherwise one can travel visa-free to the US for the life of your existing passport but you will be photographed and fingerprinted on arrival.


Chris Bertram 04.01.04 at 2:10 pm

Yes re the Spice Girls – context is all here. But I’m puzzled by your comments about St. George’s flag. If someone flew it on a flagpole in front of their house, that would be weird. But someone who displayed one during a football tournament (such as Euro 2004) would neither be a fascist nor a hooligan, just a fan.


Jonathan Ichikawa 04.01.04 at 2:12 pm

You think that American security sign is exclusionary… try spending some time in Texas. I really wouldn’t be very surprised at all to see a sign at an airport committing the personnell to the security of all Texans.


jchave 04.01.04 at 2:22 pm

Well, true the mere fact of displaying the English flag doesn’t make you a fascist hooligan although of course many of the thugs I am sure we will see in Portugal will be so doing. I was trying to make the point that the St George’s flag is more closely associated with the far right in England than the Union Flag. If our hypothetical neighbour were flying the flag during Euro 2004, well as you say context would allow you to infer he was maybe a normal footbal fan. But otherwise? I think it would send a slight chill down the spine, certainly more so than the Union Flag, which has a closer association with harmless teenagers and nice old ladies.


John Isbell 04.01.04 at 2:30 pm

My brother used to fly a black flag fom our house in Cleveland in the late 60s on the 4th of July, and my mom had to field visits from the neighbors.
The fact that teenagers overseas wear the Union Jack on clothing seems to have little bearing on its significance in the UK. In fact, none whatever.


vivian 04.01.04 at 2:35 pm

Had a Scot for a prof in the US way back when. We puzzled out the different flag contexts. His theory was that it was perception that one’s national culture was threatened that brought out the flag displays. Evidence – large number of Union Jack flags on display in Northern Ireland (pre- good friday), utter indifference elsewhere, exemplified by the ability to purchase toilet paper with the UK flag on it.

He then explained that you could also get TP with Maggie Thatcher’s face on it, no problem, but his favorite was a restaurant somewhere in Ireland where each stall had two rolls – green and orange – and everyone could vote as desired. We were spellbound.


Nasi Lemak 04.01.04 at 2:37 pm

On the language point, isn’t there just some basic fuzziness between the word “American” and words connoting “person” in American English? (Roughly like English English is often very fuzzy between “Britain/ish” and “England/ish”). For the converse of saying “American” and meaning “people”, see Howard Dean’s remark last November that “there are now almost 400 people dead who wouldn’t be dead if that resolution hadn’t been passed and we hadn’t gone to war”.


SKapusniak 04.01.04 at 2:43 pm

Since when did “flying a flag” become a symbol of facism?

Possibly since actual Fascism? Fascists were very very big on all thise ‘symbols of the nation’ kind of things and liked flags a lot. At least so my local ‘All Hitler, all the time’ TV channel tells me. That probably explains continental Europe if flagophobia obtains there. It may not someone will have to chime in.

I think the real decline in .uk specifically started sometime in the 70s. A combination of ‘The Troubles’ and Scottish and Welsh Nationalism. At that point the people in .uk most loyal to symbols of Britishness are Northern Irish Protestants who are busy sabotaging, or preventing themselves being sold out by (pick one), Her Majesty’s Governments’ — admittedly utterly cackhanded — policies for trying to bring some sort of power-sharing and political peace to the whole boodly mess. The more militant elements of whom are running terror gangs shooting people and blowing stuff up in tit-for-tat competition with the IRA.

In contrast the newly electorally significant SNP and Plaid Cymru, Scottish and Welsh Nationalists respectively, are defintely _not_ blowing people up unlike those hardline Loyalists, or the militant Irish Republicans of the IRA and Sinn Feinn — ‘Republican’ in NI political jargon is, I’ve always understood, a Irish Nationalist who believes in ‘armed struggle’ to achieve Irish Unity whilst ‘Nationalist’ is reserved for those Irish Nationalists who don’t believe in that — Instead they’re standard issue constituational political parties without military wings.

This situation continunes on to a greater or lesser extent right up to the present day.

Thus de-emphsising British symbolism becomes seen to be a good idea, it disassociates everyone sane from the loyalist terrorists, your actual fascist racist loonies (i.e. National Front types) on the mainland who tend to support said terrorists, and Other Assorted Northern Irish Maniacs Embarressingly Loyal to the Crown (i.e. Reverend Iain Paisley)…whilst avoiding irritation to Nationalists of the Scottish, Welsh, and special NI definition, variety who are judged to be reasonable people with whom we can do business whether or not we agree with their goals.

I mean, hardly anybody on the mainland has even _heard_ of ‘King Billy’ let alone thinks we should be marching around getting in peoples faces about him. Especially not in bowler hats.


Graham 04.01.04 at 3:02 pm

Dunno. I always associate the Union Jack with the vest Tim Brooke-Taylor wore in the Goodies, and the St George flag with the Barmy Army at the Cricket.

And a few years back I was watching the NSL grand final on TV and noticed there was a Union Jack behind the sidelines with “SOUTH MELBOURNE HELLAS” daubed along the crosspiece. I was quite amused by that.


Mrs Tilton 04.01.04 at 3:04 pm

‘Republican’ in NI political jargon is, I’ve always understood, a Irish Nationalist who believes in ‘armed struggle’ to achieve Irish Unity whilst ‘Nationalist’ is reserved for those Irish Nationalists who don’t believe in that

That’s right, and an odd bit of usage it is too. After all, (non-republican) nationalists in NI generally are ‘Irish republicans’ in the plain sense of the term, (a) being Irish and (b) wanting to be part of the Republic. Then again, unionists in NI are surely nationalists (albeit for a different nation). It’s a confusing political vocabulary that has evolved, but it is useful for drawing some important distinctions.

I mean, hardly anybody on the mainland has even heard of ‘King Billy’

Och, away home then, and read your bible.


dsquared 04.01.04 at 3:33 pm

I have to say that anyone who had a flagpole in their garden would in general be regarded in the UK as a bit weird whatever they flew from it.


H. 04.01.04 at 3:35 pm

I don’t think the non-flag-flying applies just to the UK. In France, the tricolor only flies from public buildings (and buses on public holidays) and it would be pretty damn weird to see one flying from a house or private building.


Ophelia Benson 04.01.04 at 3:40 pm

And by the way the stuff about revering the flag is not absolutely universal here. I’m a Murkan, but I’ve always found flag worship deeply weird. I did not rush out to buy one on the afternoon of September 11, I’ve never in my life pledged allegiance to it, I cringe when I see immense ones outside hamburger joints. I’m not keen on sub-rational symbol-mongering.

Same with the protecting all Murkans bit. I cringe at our parochialism just as much as I cringe at our cloth-fetishism. Not to mention our chronic god-bothering.

Sorry. I know that will infuriate a few or a lot of people. But there it is.


Robert Lyman 04.01.04 at 3:50 pm

The stuff about flags being “appropriated” by the right wing is odd. I’ve heard that theory in least 3 countries now: Germany, US, and UK. Nothing the right wing does can prevent you from flying a flag if you like. Really! Try it sometime.

Rather, I think the Left in many contries has abandoned their respective flags. There’s a strong post-national/anti-patriotic streak in many left-wing political movements, which leads them to characterize flag-flying as axiomatically fascist.

Symbols mean what you think they mean, after all.


ian 04.01.04 at 3:57 pm

Two things have always intrigued me about the US – the first is the reverence paid to the physical flag itself – all that ritualistic folding and things (although I remember having to go through rather similar actions in my boy sprout days).

The second is the equally strong reverence paid to the physical body of the President which sometimes comes over as almost mystical. Just compare what happens at a press conference by the US President and one by the British PM. You don’t see many British journos leaping to their feet for Tony do you?

I often feel – especially given the real power vested in his hands – that the President is really an elected King, and what’s more a King with powers much more akin to those of the King in Britain c1800 than those exercised by our own dear Queen.

I’ve asked this question of US citizens before but never been able to get an answer.

In passing, one of the less endearing characteristics of Americans on Usenet and the like used to be the assumption that everyone was of course American like them. I remember being rather bemused the first time I was accused of being un-American for asking a question like this!


harry 04.01.04 at 4:05 pm

I think you have a short memory Chris. When I left Britain in the mid-80’s the St. George’s flag was almost exclusively a fascist symbol. When I returned in 2000 it took me a long time to get used to seeing it literally everywhere at sporting events (cricket in particular) and no-one turning a hair. Like seeing fylfots everywhere and no-one being the slightest bit troubled.

I still have a visceral reaction to seeing people flying the flag in the US, which I have to suppress because Chris is right that the context is different. Whereas when I grew up in Britain flag flying was the preserve of eccentrics (like TBT) fascists (like the NF) and the Queen (if she counts as a distinct category), in the US perfectly decent and normal people do it (even though it still seems a bit odd to me — a bit like people who name their houses things like ‘Dunroamin’). And, of course, as an ardent small-r republican I have to remind myself that July 4th should be my favourite holiday (it isn’t, because I still have this burning resentment that they didn’t go over to Britain and finish off the job).


Robert Lyman 04.01.04 at 4:11 pm

Well, Ian, we don’t have a King, but I’ve begun to suspect that people feel some sort of deep need for one.

For instance, witness the reverence in the US for the Constitution (that’s with a capital “C,” pal!). Every public official from the dogcatcher to the President (capital “P”!) swears alliegance to it, in the manner that the public servants of an earlier day swore fealty to a lord or king.

We tend to think that our Constitution embodies everything right and good and forbids all that is bad; we have a nasty habit of taking patently political debates and claiming that our desired result is compelled by our nation’s charter. I think that is a sort of king-worship-displacement: we think a wise constitution must agree with us, our Constitution is by definition wise, so it must agree with us, regardless of what it actually says. That strikes me as a modern republican version of royal infallability.

Also, it seems to me that people want a symbolic head of state. Many other countries have an unelected monarch filling the “personification of the Nation” role, but we have to make do with only old parchment, striped cloth, and a politician.


dog1 04.01.04 at 4:41 pm

“…try spending some time in Texas. I really wouldn’t be very surprised at all to see a sign at an airport committing the personnell to the security of all Texans.”


Let me explain how we do things down here. If you flew into D/FW airport the sign would profess a commitment to protect all North Texans. If you flew into Austin, all Hill Country residents. Houston, all Gulf-Coasters, etc…
You see, we are nothing if not tribal down here.


Keith M Ellis 04.01.04 at 4:47 pm

As someone with a completely American context, I can say that I’ve long found flag displays a bit creepy (or at least gauche). For me, they’re evocative of groupthink/nationalist/parochialist thinking. But, really, is that exceptional of Americans? Don’t many cultures express these sentiments in one form or another?

On the other hand, my ex-wife, a Canadian, was weirded out by her first few Independence Day celebrations here in the states. But I defended American patriotism in that context—where I share it. More often than not, I’m embarassed by what America and Americans actually are, but I’m rather proud of and revere the ideals that form the core of what it ought to be.


Keith M Ellis 04.01.04 at 4:53 pm

Oh, and to follow-up on Jonathan’s Texas comment…the damn Texas flag is everywhere, here, too. Along with the word “Texas” (e.g. in business names) and the state’s graphical representation. Everwhere.

I love Austin, but I hate Texas. I do mention that from time to time, which doesn’t endear me to the native Texans I know (including my best friend). I’d like to wear a “I hate Texas” t-shirt, but I’d be shot. You think I’m kidding?


Robert Lyman 04.01.04 at 5:06 pm

I hate to start a flame war, but Keith and Ophelia have just annoyed me too much with their superior attitude.

Is is somehow impossible to imagine that some people fly the flag not because they are drooling morons who can’t think for themselves, but rather simply because they love their country and its ideals? Is it not possible that for some, the flag symbolizes for them precisely what the US ought to be?

Can you imagine that for some, the American flag represents not parochialism and narrow-mindedness, but tolerance, equality, justice, and openness to new people and ideas?

Any chance that people who don’t share your left-wing, athiest, “citizen of the world” political views might be a person worthy of your respect and, dare I say it, tolerance?



Duckling 04.01.04 at 5:12 pm

You’ve hit the nail on the head with your comment about exclusionary language on the poster. It’s no doubt just an unfortunate turn of phrase rather than deliberate exclusionism.


Keith M Ellis 04.01.04 at 5:17 pm

…but tolerance, equality, justice, and openness to new people and ideas?

I don’t doubt that there are a minority of people for whom this is true, you among them. And good on ‘ya for it. But I don’t think this is true for the majority; I do think that for a large portion of America the flag is an emblem of bigotry, and thus I consequently am offended by it. You realize that this discussion applies perfectly well to the Confederate Flag, too? So, do you think the proud displays of the Confederate Flag most often represent benign southern pride, or is it something more sinister? For some, I think the former. For a much-too-large portion, the latter. Public symbols come to mean what they come to mean, contrary individual or minority efforts notwithstanding.


Mrs Tilton 04.01.04 at 5:32 pm

Dear me, but this thread is turning testy. Quick, let’s change the subject. Keith wrote:

the damn Texas flag is everywhere, here, too. Along with the word “Texas” (e.g. in business names) and the state’s graphical representation. Everwhere.

I once heard someone say (alas, I cannot remember who) that Texas is the only state that is also a belt-buckle.

My own feeling is that Texas is Bavaria, translated into American.


Mrs Tilton 04.01.04 at 5:36 pm

BTW, Robert: I’d never seen your blog, so I just clicked on your URL, and now I find you’ve hung up your boots. Oh well. But best of luck in law school.


Robert Lyman 04.01.04 at 5:39 pm

Well, Keith, we can’t possibly agree on the bigotry thing.

I find it impossible to believe all the people waving their little flags and watching the fireworks on Independence day are actually thinking “Those god-damn N***s and Jews are runing a perfectly good country!” Also difficult is the thought that the naturalized immigrants in the crowd are engaged in some sort of nativist masturbation.

And yes, this discussion applies to the Confederate flag. As a northerner, it makes me a little squeamish; its a product of a culture somewhat alien to me. But as a student at UVa, I know too many good and decent Southerners to write them all off as bigots. I’m inclined to take the good folks at their word when they say they support southern pride but not racism.


nick 04.01.04 at 6:22 pm

It really is unimaginable that a similar poster at a British or European airport would speak of “all Britons” or “all Europeans” — it would seem weird and exclusionary.

Yes, but as others have mentioned, the proportion of domestic air travellers compared to international ones in the US is very different to that in major British or European airports.

(I’m more annoyed by the post hoc naturalisation of everyone who died on Sept. 11th 2001: you hear about the ‘3,000 dead Americans’ all the time here, which must be news to the next of kin who then faced deportation.)

As for the flag, it’s a sad truth that were a Martian to land in the US, it would assume that the flag were a symbol of the relative power of car dealerships. Perhaps that is the ideal to which Robert Lyman aspires.


NYJim 04.01.04 at 6:31 pm

The pledge of allegiance (the name says it all) is a lot more disturbing – As the Cato Institute writes, “From its inception, in 1892, the Pledge has been a slavish ritual of devotion to the state, wholly inappropriate for a free people. It was written by Francis Bellamy, a Christian Socialist …” Don’t miss these pictures:


John Isbell 04.01.04 at 6:35 pm

“Any chance that people who don’t share your left-wing, athiest, “citizen of the world” political views might be a person worthy of your respect and, dare I say it, tolerance?”
Tolerance, absolutely. I wouldn’t want them shaping national policy, mind you. I prefer my leaders to know there’s a planet out there.
IMO US attitudes to the flag are fetishistic. It’s that simple. I can handle a little fetishism, but sometimes it has drawbacks.


Ophelia Benson 04.01.04 at 6:39 pm

Well, I very slightly disagree with Chris and Harry on the ‘different context’ matter. Very slightly. Or maybe I don’t, really. I’m not saying flag-waving is purely right-wing or fascist here, so if it is there, then that is a difference. But even so, I do think it has some unsavory overtones for some of us. Of, precisely, Murkan parochialism and Number One-ism and sod the rest of the worldism and hyperpatriotism. Yes, patriotism has its uses, but it can be a bad thing, too. Is that not obvious? Depends on what your country is doing to other countries, for instance, or to its own people. German patriotism ca. 1944 must have been a fairly sinister item, what with all those trains chugging back and forth, no? So surely it’s not just effete nihilism to think patriotism should be used with caution.


Robert Lyman 04.01.04 at 6:51 pm

So surely it’s not just effete nihilism to think patriotism should be used with caution.

Of course Ophelia is right about that. But it isn’t clear to me that American patriotism–which is really quite explicitly political, “liberty and justice for all” and all that–is comparable to the fascistic blood-and-soil, lebensraum sort of patriotism.

Nick complains about it, but sure the willingness of Americans to count the foreigners who died on Sept. 11 as “Americans” is better than carefully parsing them out: “2,500 Americans, and 500 non-human furriners who don’t count for anything.”


Keith M Ellis 04.01.04 at 6:55 pm

Robert—just a note: bigotry is not synonymous with racism; I chose that word with care.

I’m quite enamoured with the ideals that founded the US and there’s a whole lot of things that this country has done that I’m proud of. There are documents, supreme court decisions, and speeches which all make me weepy with patriotic pride. But, for me, it’s about the ideals and not tribalism. When I came to the sad realization that for most Americans it’s about tribalism and not the ideals, my comfort level with ostentatious patriotism dropped through the basement.


harry 04.01.04 at 7:05 pm

Congrats to Robert, Keith, and Ophelia for having this argument civilly. Not surprised that you three can do it, but even that’s a testament to your skills.

Isn’t there this issue about the meaning of symbols: when I display the symbol I cannot simply invest it with my preferred meaning if I know that it means something quite different to some of the audience, and to some of the other displayers of the symbol. Not playing a number game here – some flag wavers do so as a kind of in-your-face display of self-satisfied superiority, other do it in the spirit Robert describes, and still others without a thought in the world and I don’t know the proportions. But those who do it benignly are, or should be, aware that others do it differently, and that affects the meaning of their own actions. So context matters quite a bit — hence the difference between diplaying a ST George’s flag at a test match in 2000 from displaying it just about anywhere in England in 1985. I’m not quite siding with Ophelia and Keith here, though I’m inclined to, but saying to Robert that the benign flag-displayer (and like him I know, and am related to, many of them) has a to tell a slightly more complicated story about why it is ok (similarly with confederate flag displayers who cannot avoid knowing how what they do will be taken by others).


Robert Lyman 04.01.04 at 7:06 pm

Well, I defended what I termed “tribal patriotism” here, and no doubt you will find much to criticize in what I wrote. Frankly, I wish I had come up with a better word to describe what I was trying to say, but no one who commented came up with anything, either.

I would agree that waving a flag to say “we’re better than you” is problematic. But I would be very, very hesitant to ascribe that view to “most” Americans. Certainly I’ve never met anyone who explicitly thought that way, although perhaps I’ve just been lucky.


Keith M Ellis 04.01.04 at 7:08 pm

But it isn’t clear to me that American patriotism—which is really quite explicitly political, “liberty and justice for all” and all that—is comparable to the fascistic blood-and-soil, lebensraum sort of patriotism.“—Robert

This is the root of our disagreement. You think the best about ostentatious American patriotism, I do not. I think we both hold these positions in good faith.

Believe me, I wish I could believe otherwise. I am critical of the US and my fellow Americans, but I’m not the least antiamerican in the perverse, self-hating sense. In general, I think the best of people, not the worst; and I certainly don’t style myself a cynic.

But I have a big, big problem with tribalism and I believe that those instincts are the cause of the majority of evil in the world.

It’s no coincidence that 9/11 inspired a bunch of ostentatious patriotism. People were not waving the flags out of a desire to assert democracy and civil liberties; they were waving the flags as a show of tribal solidarity in the face of an enemy, alien threat. This was accompanied by a great deal of xenophobia and demonization. People who appeared middle-eastern were assaulted in the streets. A middle-aged woman I know was spit upon. I think this is all part-and-parcel. Is this what the flag-waving means to everyone? Of course not. But it means this to too many people for me to feel comfortable associating myself with it in any sense.


Keith M Ellis 04.01.04 at 7:23 pm

I’d like to underscore what I said above. I feel strongly about this matter because the American ideal means so much to me. As a child, the flag very much meant to me what it means to you, Robert; and I assumed that this is what it meant to other Americans. I deeply internalized, as many of us do, the grade-school version of American history.

Especially in terms of foreign policy, one thing that strongly differentiates American conservatives from liberals is whether one believes that the reality of American foreign policy has been in accordance with those ideals, or not. Most of us on the left think that it has not. Some respond to this realization with a relatively extreme and (I think) perverse self-hatred that just inverts the stereotype about the US and other nations. But I’m still glad to be an American, and I take it as my patriotic duty to defend the American ideal from those that would transform it into (or maintain it as) a tribalistic nativism. To my eyes, that characterizes the majority of ostentatious American patriotism, and it offends me deeply.

I could be wrong. I’d be happy to discover that I am.


Kim 04.01.04 at 7:43 pm

when I display the symbol I cannot simply invest it with my preferred meaning

So context matters quite a bit

Didn’t we have this argument over the “meaning” of the Spanish election? And aren’t the positions and their supporters now reversed?

For the record, I agree entirely with Harry’s quotes above. In both situations.


Ophelia Benson 04.01.04 at 7:43 pm

You bet, Robert. I’m all for the ideals aspect. It’s when it shades into the other thing that I withdraw, and as we all seem to realize, it can be pretty hard to tell which is going on when.


nick 04.01.04 at 7:50 pm

Nick complains about it, but sure the willingness of Americans to count the foreigners who died on Sept. 11 as “Americans” is better than carefully parsing them out.

I’d prefer a parsing that replaced ‘Americans’ with ‘people’, Robert.

And I’m actually glad that the flag is used as synecdoche for the nation, compared to the alternatives. But when you have a symbol as amorphous in its connotations, it’s important, in a way, to defend that multiplicity of meanings, whether it’s to sell cars or stand as an implicit endorsement of constitutional liberty.


Another Damned Medievalist 04.01.04 at 8:12 pm

I have to say I agree with Ophelia and Keith, which isn’t really that surprising. I have to say, though, that I’m just verging on being offended, Robert. The kind of patriotism you refer to seems very much, “my country, right or wrong.” That’s crap, IMO. I don’t own a flag. Don’t pledge. Am frequently ashamed of this country and its policies. Can see some real places for improvement. From your comments, I think you might term me anti-American. But here’s the deal:

In the Murka where I was raised, we knew what the flag symbolized, but we knew that the Constitution was what made us special. It was the Bill of Rights that made us proud. My mother, a knee-jerk liberal, and my father, an ever-more-right-wing navy veteran Republican, both opposed involvement in VietNam, but for different reasons. Both now oppose the Patriot Act, because they see it as an affront to the values embodied in the Constitution. If we give up those rights, responsibilities, and privileges and replace them with public flag-waving, then are we really patriots?

Seems to me that the really patriotic things — voting, participating in society, being informed, and looking critically at our government and holding it accountable (and fixing it when there’s a problem) are the most patriotic things we can do. Waving and pledging to the flag require little effort and almost no commitment to action and involvement. Case in point — for weeks after 9/11, there were tons of flags in evidence in my neighborhood, plus people at intersections waving flags and signs that read ‘honk if you love America’, yet when I went to vote in the very next election, not two months later, there were only a couple of people there, and only about 30 people had shown up between 7:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. So much for patriotism.


Keith M Ellis 04.01.04 at 8:36 pm

Kim—you may not recall that my positions are consistent between this and the Spanish election. I asserted, for example, that terrorism and the response to it are communication and even that, to some degree, the Spanish election was felicitous to Al Qaeda and the terrorists. But I also asserted that the overwhelmingly primary context for the Spanish election was as a referendum on the former government. I am arguing in this case that the primary context (though not as overwhelmingly) for American flag-waving is chauvinism.

And, not incidentally, I wrote something similarly consistent with regard to the swastika thread, as well.

Harry’s point above is the salient one. Context matters a great deal and context is not a matter of (individual) personal choice. If one wishes to assert a meaning of a symbol that differs from convention, then one must do so very loudly and actively…not silently, lest one be misunderstood.

I don’t, for example, see many attempts to clearly and loudly distinguish the display of the Confederate Flag from its conventional, bigoted context. This is revealing, I think. I’d be more impressed if the argument that it’s benign was pro-active and otherwise substantiated. Not merely as an aggrieved defense.


Robert Lyman 04.01.04 at 8:49 pm


I’m quite a long way from “my country right or wrong,” which is a boneheaded motto if ever there was one. (On the other hand, I do believe that at times, it is necessary to support even policies with which you disagree–for instance, once Clinton decided to send troops to places like Haiti and Bosnia, the Republicans had an obligation to shift their rhetoric from “should we go in?” to “How do we win?” Not all of them managed to make the switch. Ditto for Dems in Iraq.)

Rather, I believe in a rational patriotism: the belief that this is the best damn country on the planet, and I’m not ashamed to say it. (No affront intended to those posters who are subjects of Her Majesty in various dominions–you have very nice countries, too). I think my belief is backed up by facts and history. Not that our history is perfect–rather a long way from that–just pretty good. Of course, much of what makes it good is the willingness of citizens to complain about it, as you suggest.

Now, waving a flag is doubtless less important than voting and other concrete expressions of patriotism. But this thread has been devoted to the question “Is flying a US flag fascist?” (I oversimplify, cut me some slack) which question I answer with a resounding NO WAY IN HELL. This does not mean I think flying a flag is mandatory, or that it is more important than actually bothering to understand issues beyond the bumper-sticker level.


yabonn 04.01.04 at 9:03 pm

Loosely related :

I noticed these last summers that a huge majority of english speaking backpackers had somewhere a little red-and-white maple leaf. Sewed, printed, stamped, drawn, whatever. So i go “wow, somehow i’d have thought canadians were not so gung-ho for the flag thing”. Then go “mmmmmmhmmmmm maple syrup”, homer style. Then move on to the next thing.

Later i discovered on the net (we all know how reliable this thing is, right?) the u.s. myth of the rude-to-americans parisian, and the ensuing countermeasures : “just put on a canadian flag, they’re popular there”.

It’s not a proof, mind you. But more than enough anyways for me to spread here in paris the urban legend that under every canadian flag decorated backpack, there’s a freaked out mirkin.

So it seems we have the traditionnally flag waving americans, waving the flag of the traditionnaly not flag waving canadians. Among the subtles pleasures of living in france maybe :-)


Another Damned Medievalist 04.01.04 at 9:05 pm

Daah-um! And here I thought that what Chris said was that, while flag-waving tends to be associated with the ultra-right nationalist types outside of the US, that didn’t seem to be the norm here — but to Furriners, it was still unsettling. I’d take it a step further and say that the really scary ultra-right nationalist types in the US actually don’t wave the flag, because they’d like to destroy this place and raise up a nice, white, Christian country in its place. I hear they like to replace stars and stripes with funky crosses in black.

Oh well — off to Medieval Academy — anybody who’s going can look me up there.


james 04.01.04 at 9:14 pm

While the primary units in which we live in are defined as nations we will need to have some kind of pride and self-respect relating to them – i.e. “patriotism”.

On the other hand, there is a very long history throughout the world of nationalism functioning to dull the critical faculties of the masses. Europeans, for obvious historical reasons are probably more acutely aware, and wary, of this – national flag fervour, we’ve seen this tape before, and it didn’t end up too happily.

Europe is no more about to go fascist again than is the US, but Europeans are still that bit wary of flag-flaunting. Too often, IMO, what is on display in America would be better named as nationalism than patriotism.


ian 04.01.04 at 9:17 pm

Can someone explain to me – and this is a genuine question not a troll – how all this flag waving in support of the USA is reconciled with what seems like a pretty general dislike of the federal government whoever is President? It has always seemed a contradiction to me that the most avid flag wavers always seem to be the most agressive defenders of individual and states rights.


Kim 04.01.04 at 9:22 pm

the overwhelmingly primary context for the Spanish election was as a referendum on the former government.

And the context for that referendum was the bombings of March 11. As I recall, many of the arguments here either denied that the events of March 11 were crucial to the result of March 14 (i.e. that the trend would have brought a Socialist victory anyway) or insisted that if they were influential, it was only because they showed the PP government to be liars. Having one’s “queque”…?

the primary context (though not as overwhelmingly) for American flag-waving is chauvinism.


But (our) Canadian flag-waving has no such connotation. None, none, none.


Another Damned Medievalist 04.01.04 at 9:27 pm

Because from its very foundation, the US has constantly debated and felt the tension between states’ rights and federal rights? Check out the Constitutional Convention, for example. The really funny part is that even the most states’ rights-oriented people will look for huge overarching federal laws if it suits their personal politico-religious agenda.

We are good at double-think. i think.


Keith M Ellis 04.01.04 at 9:49 pm

Ian—understanding these nuances is all about understanding the distinctions between cultural and political identity and the fact that the US, relative to most other nations, does not have both those identities rooted in ethnicity. But since I believe that most people are tribal, I think that American tribalism manifests as a pseudo-ethnicity— a fable about American history that conflates apple-pie, baseball, independent white men, John Wayne, protestantism, and the 50s nuclear family. That is, however, very much not the America of today (if it ever was). Those folks’ allegiance is to a fabled, white, Christian America; they are, they believe, the proper inheritors of the legacy of the founding fathers and that the Leviathan, taxing federal government—even when nominally controlled by Republicans (conservatives, even now, even at the helm, are convinced of their outsider, aggrieved status)—is the “enemy”.

This isn’t much different than any other nationalism; it’s not about political ideals, it’s about volk. The only difference here is that volk has to necessarily be defined in a non-standard way (that is, not by traditional ethnicity). The impulse to nationalism is essentially the same in America as it is elsewhere, but its expression can be very idiosyncratic.


John Isbell 04.01.04 at 9:50 pm

Canadians may not fly flags much at home, but they’ve had maple leafs on their backpacks in Europe for decades.


yabonn 04.01.04 at 10:20 pm

they?ve had maple leafs on their backpacks in Europe for decades.


Well all the worse. Don’t need no stinkin’ fact spoiling my funny story. Se non e vero, e ben trovato. So there.


Keith M Ellis 04.01.04 at 10:50 pm

Isn’t the maple leaf flag recent? I thought it was only adopted in 1974 or something.


Keith M Ellis 04.01.04 at 10:51 pm

Ah. Note to self: Google first, then post. The maple leaf flag was adopted in 1965.


Thlayli 04.01.04 at 11:12 pm

58 posts on the British flag(s) and not one mention of Pete Townshend’s jacket. What is wrong woth you people?!?


Robert Lyman 04.01.04 at 11:36 pm


I am one of those flag waving anti-government types. There is a bumper sticker which represents this phenomenon: “I love my country but I fear my government.” I don’t actually have that on my car, but that’s because of my wife.

Now, I think Keith is, once again, being far less generous than he ought to be to his political opposites. I’ll agree with his idea that most people are tribal, but other than that I think his explanation is nonsense.

Simply put, my “love but fear” ideology can be summed up in two bullet points:

–“My country” means freedom, Bill of Rights, equality under the law, etc. I associate the flag with those ideals. And while this does make me the intellectual heir of the Founders, I wouldn’t limit my “tribe” to white Christians; it’s a big tent, with plenty of room for pretty much anyone who believes in the “self-evident truths” of the Declaration of Independance. My wife, for instance, is the daughter of Korean immigrants; she certainly is welcome.

–“my government” is the messy and necessarily crude attempt at implementing the ideals of “my country.” Simply put, I mistrust all concentrations of power, whether they be government, labor unions, corporations, whatever. The federal government is the granddaddy of all power concentrations; I trust it less than any of the others. And since so many of the people who run the government seem to hold me in open contempt for my beliefs and my lifestyle, I naturally trust it even less. Fundamentally, I want to be left alone to run my own affairs to the extent possible; I mistrust and dislike those who think I need Big Brother to guide my every move.

The key distinction: the United States is not the United States Government.


John Isbell 04.02.04 at 12:26 am

vabonn, I think it’s a great story, and probably with some truth to it.


Keith M Ellis 04.02.04 at 12:44 am

Robert—I believe you, but I think you’re in the minority.

Years ago I worked in a retail store that was situated in the Korean area of town (this was in Amarillo). One day I helped a middle-aged Korean couple who was being kind of picky about their selection. A coworker later privately made a disparaging comment about Koreans and that they should “go back where they came from”. I responded that immigrants built this country and immigrants are still building this country; and, to me, those folks are more “American” than many white people I know.

Maybe it’s because I’ve lived in Texas; but when I’ve traveled elsewhere I’ve heard the same crap (though not as egregious). The America I grew up in and live in today is far from the idealistic America that you and I want it to be. It’s bigoted, racist, ignorant, and hateful. Is it worse than average in these respects? I doubt it. (For example, I discovered Canada’s seedy underbelly for myself.) And there are a good number of people in the US—people like you and me and the others represented in this thread—who do their best to try in their own behavior and in their influence to help this country live up to its ideals.

But I’ve seen a lot of hate and ugliness in my life that has taken sanctuary under the flag.

I’d prefer to live in the America you believe exists. I’d never be able to live in the America that leftist, American, antiamericans believe exists. Instead, I’m stuck with what I think is its flawed-but-not-evil reality and I’ll take the good and fight the bad.

I’ll take you at your word and I regret tarring you with such a broad brush. But I honestly think that flag-waving in the US is more bad than good.


Robert Lyman 04.02.04 at 12:51 am

Well put, Keith, and probably as good a last word as any.


John Quiggin 04.02.04 at 1:42 am

As an aside, there was in the late 90s in Australia, a period in which the national anthem was commonly sung (by an invited individual) prior to many sporting events.

This fashion appears to have passed, and while I never saw explicit debate about it, I imagine many others shared my view that this was an objectionably unAustralian practice.

As an even further aside, the Marseillaise is regularly played at the sporting events I attend, since my local Australian football team has adopted it as the tune for its club song. I don’t know quite what to think about this, but it’s a great tune.


dog1 04.02.04 at 3:36 am

I was gone all day and obviously missed all of the fun. Dang. First I would like to defend Texas a bit here if I may. I was born in Texas and live here currently. In between I have lived in California, Florida, Upstate New York, and Kansas. I have to say that, not discounting the experiences that have obviously soured Keith on the place, I have seen every bit the casual bigotry, blind patriotism, and parochialism in those other places as I have experienced in Texas. Honestly, I wish I could say that wasn’t true. My experience living in, just one example, the Catskills, involved dealing with many of the same prejudices and provincial attitudes found in rural Texas. And I found just as many bigots. Excepting certain areas known for their liberalism, including many College towns, I think there are pockets of these attitudes all over this country. Even in these nice areas of enlightenment, Austin for example, a town I also lived in and like a lot, I would not have too much trouble finding a nice ignorant skinhead ready to espouse about the most hateful speech you will find anywhere. San Francisco, where I have lived, is the same way. Which underscores a point made here earlier, that the most dangerous Americans are not the flag wavers at all, at least not in my experience.

So, much to my own surprise really, I have to come down on Robert’s side in the debate above. Rather, I can concede many of Keith’s points but I don’t share his conclusion. Just the other day, walking down my street, I was actually struck by how many American flags were flying. I had to check my memory to see if it was a holiday. It wasn’t. But the fact is, I know those people; mostly middle class, mostly moderate to conservative. I think the flag for them is simply a symbol of what they value. Now it may be that symbols are a refuge for those uncomfortable with ideas. But that doesn’t mean that those uncomfortable with ideas are ready to use those symbols in the name of hate or injustice.


Natalie Solent 04.02.04 at 9:14 am

(Apologies if two very similar comments appear; I think the version I tried to send last night was eaten by the internet but I can’t be sure.)

I would like to take issue with Chris’s initial assertion that any British person who flies a union flag or cross of St George would be regarded as some kind of nut (or a racist). Round where I live that is not true. For instance there is a particularly enormous cross of St George flying from a pole in front of the Queen Victoria pub in Great Dunmow. That pub is also the Jalsa Ghar Indian/Bangladeshi restaurant.


Chris Bertram 04.02.04 at 12:10 pm

Natalie, what I wrote was

“… someone flying one [a union jack] _on their house_ would be considered some kind of nut.”

Which isn’t incompatible with what you wrote about a flagpole in front of a pub flying the cross of St. George. And I’m inclined to agree with Daniel that anyone with a flagpole in front of their _house_ (in the UK) is pretty weird. (Unless that house is Buck House, but then, the family living there is pretty weird quite independently of the flagpole issue.)


Natalie Solent 04.02.04 at 2:15 pm

Point taken about the house/pub distinction, but even so I see quite a few in front of houses (they went up at the time of the World Cup/ Golden Jubilee and some never came down) and they can’t all be fascists. I hope. Headingham in particular seems to be a hotbed of flaggery. Perhaps the influence of Headingham Castle gives them delusions of royal birth.

Changing the subject a bit, a Scottish friend observes that the Cross of St Andrew is a very common sight up there (People flying union flags are the rebels) and no one thinks it weird at all. It’s not fair!


marka 04.04.04 at 2:55 am

Chipping in on a (much) earlier point about flag-flying in Northern Ireland.. it’s certainly not a pre-Good Friday phenomenon. In fact, the main change I’ve noticed is that the Northern Irish flag (a rather boring variation on the St George’s) is now often accompanied by a UVF flag (the UVF being one of the main Protestant terrorist groups). Of course, people have been known to get beaten up for *not* flying one..


canajun eh 04.04.04 at 8:14 am

In an excellent essay, Geoff Rector writes,
“there is nothing so foreign to Canadians as the American flag. This is because, unlike the Canadian flag, which in 1965, after years of negotiation and compromise, we agreed would designate the nation–what the linguists would call a sign of convention–the American flag is a sacralized symbol. It is an object of public veneration that focuses the belief systems of a quasi-religious cult of the nation.”
For the whole essay, check out http://www.thestranger.com/2003-07-03/ex3.html

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