Essays, The American Flag

 Good Old Glory:

Where is the Glory Now?

(c) 2004,  Sardia Batchasingh

“Three Flags” Jasper Johns (1958) 

It represents all that America is. Americans stand, hand over heart listening to their national anthem, gazing at it with eyes full of love and respect and awe. It is their idol. Even the American national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner,” was inspired by, and sings in adoration of its resilience, standing among the rockets and bombs bursting in air. (Academic American Encyclopedia, A.A.E. 67)  How appropriate! It stands for truth, liberty and justice, they say. It flies in the land of the free and the home of the brave and is seen everywhere in the world. It is an international icon, the Stars and Stripes, Old Glory, the American flag. For Americans and many around the world this flag has been representative of patriotism and the American Dream; in the last few decades however, opinions have changed; this flag now represents a manipulative, oppressing, superpower.

The American flag was first introduced in 1776. Originally, the flag was made up of thirteen stripes and a British Union canton. The thirteen stripes represented the states that revolted against the mother country, Britain. In 1777 stars were introduced to represent a Constellation; stars were added to the flag as states were added to the Union (Barraclough, 77). The origin is uncertain, however, it has been suggested that George Washington enlisted the help of a young seamstress, Betsy Ross from Philadelphia, to sew the flag; however, there is no official documentation to show its origin. The flag has been changed twenty seven times from 1777 to 1960 (A.A.E., 134). The Pledge of Allegiance to the flag was written in 1892 to honour it; this was adopted by the United States Congress in1942. Congress also adopted a Flag Code the same year to give specifics on flag etiquette and handling instructions. The Pledge of Allegiance goes as follows:

“I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

“This flag is more than the National Flag” to the American citizen, “it is the symbol of the nation to which he or she owes allegiance” (Barraclough & Crampton,70). 

A semiotic analysis of this flag shows the signifier as a rectangular piece of fabric with a rectangular canton, holding fifty white, five-point geometric star shapes in a blue field. The stars each have a point turned upward and are in nine rows staggered horizontally and eleven rows staggered vertically (usflag.org/the.50.star). Covering the rest of the rectangle are seven red and six white intermittent horizontal bars or stripes, with red at the top and bottom. “A flag is a piece of coloured fabric that serves as a symbol or signalling device.” (Barraclough & Crampton, 70). It can serve as a message from a person or a group of people. It can display the military power of a country. Victorious armies use them to humiliate their enemies, and to carry messages of threat, challenge, victory and submission. They signify protection, pride, honour, loyalty and hope and are used to identify the nation state (A.A.E., 133). The American flag represents all of the above and is a “primary focus of patriotism” (Barraclough & Crampton, 70). Flags express deep felt emotion and they have great public visibility, which makes them an important medium of political communication. Their colours and designs are associated with concepts of liberty, independence, democracy and nationalism. They have been used for political mobilization of the masses. Patriots still use them to show love of country. (A.A.E., 133). The American flag is representative of a nation. When Americans look at their flag, it signifies every level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, from basic survival to lofty ideals. It is like a religious symbol, it is idolized.

This flag represents America and is viewed with favour in friendly countries, like England. America is a valuable ally to many. They are rescuers, as with the allies in World War II, as in Kuwait. That flag means security for some, like Israel. Its close ties with the United States ensure Israel’s military superiority over the countries of the Middle East. Old Glory, as the American flag was nicknamed in 1831(usflag.org/old glory) represents a way of life to many. It is associated with a better way of life throughout the world because America exports this idea through products, movies, advertising campaigns and music videos. In Canada, the American flag signifies a good neighbour, friend, family and largest economic trading partner. When they were in need on September 11, Canada was there to house their aircrafts and citizens. When they close their border to our products, like beef, our economy suffers. But, they are our allies, they mean security, or do they? Could it be that our close association with our good neighbour is putting us at risk?

Not every country welcomes the hoisting of Old Glory. America has quite a track record of undesirable, or some might say despicable deeds. Their foreign policy is a constant source of controversy. Their widespread interference in Central America during the twentieth century has been totally unethical. Their Central Intelligence Agency has been guilty of covert operations that have supported military coups, brought down governments and damaged countries so badly that after many years, they still cannot recover. They have done this to further their own business interests, legal or otherwise, and through fear of the appearance of another Fidel Castro type. The same has happened in South America, for example, Chile. Only many years after the fact do we learn of some of the deeds when investigations are done or the government documents are released. America, the superpower, does not answer to anybody so they are not held accountable. America’s undying support for Israel, even though Ariel Sharon has war crime charges pending against him and Israel has had resolutions placed against them by the United Nations Security Council, means that they support the genocide that is occurring in Palestine. The world keeps lamenting over the old “Holocaust”, not too many seem concerned about the one that has been happening in Palestine for over fifty years.

The humanitarian reasons given by the United States to justify their interference, flying their flag in other people’s countries, are fooling less people. They “liberate” countries where they have oil interests. The Chechens and Russians need help; Africa needs help. The Americans didn’t dash off to save the Bosnian Muslims from ethnic cleansing by the Serbians; neither did they try to stop the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.   Those are not oil rich countries. Americans do many good deeds around this world; but the American government’s humanitarian efforts are suspect. It is no wonder then that Old Glory represents underhandedness, interference and oppression to many, and in the case of Iraq, occupation. American Middle East policy is like a basket of dirty laundry, it requires cleaning up and straightening out for all our sakes. People who grow up in dire and violent circumstances have little value for life. We see them use their most precious resources, their bodies, their lives, in place of the weapons they lack. Their hatred festers and breeds toward a people, a flag that they see on the bombshells dropped on them.

Globalization has brought exploitation to new depths and Old Glory is flying over multinational corporations worldwide. Third world countries that adjust tax laws to encourage investment by multinational corporations sometimes lose more than they gain. They often don’t have proper environmental laws in place and their air, land and water resources end up being irreparably damaged. Wage levels are sometimes so low that the population benefit is negligible. Union Carbide has paid the people of Bhopal, India; but 3800 people died and 2800 more had been injured, and they still had to fight for the money. Old Glory has not been flying high on environmental issues since this new Bush regime withdrew from Kyoto and seems intent on plundering Alaska for oil. It seems that the consequences have escaped the American government. Old Glory seems to be hanging in the background on global cooperation.

The American flag is revered and near idolized by Americans. It seems to be used as a brainwashing tool. If citizens disagree with the government’s war policy, they are unpatriotic. Where is free speech and democracy? Since September 11, the flag is even more visible; the concept of patriotism has been taken to a new lofty place or depth. They fly Old Glory from their houses, businesses, cottages and trailers. It is used to sell clothes, holiday paraphernalia like decorations and paper accessories like plates and cups. They use it in advertising campaigns, on logos and on labels. Old Glory is not aging and is big business as it is seen around the world on American products. 

The American Flag stands for many positive thoughts and ideals. Many around the world admire it and hope for a chance at the American Dream. Immigrants to the United States of America come from diverse backgrounds and are thankful to make their home in that country where they can make a good life for themselves. Americans have an admirable pride in their country and flag. It is the excessive reference of almost anything to patriotism and the kind of deification of their president, a man, that makes it seem like an American cult. They don’t think so, but there are many areas in which they fall short as a country. Their disregard for the world environment, exploitation of others and bullying super power foreign policy approach are making them targets. The sad lesson is that they can be reached, as they were shown on September 11. But is this glorious country learning any lessons? Everything they do affects us all because they are a super power. I think of that tattered flag at the demolished World Trade Center, Old Glory; I think of the soldier putting the flag over the face of Saddam Hussein’s statue; I think of the soldiers, the people, the children of Afghanistan and Iraq; and I think, where is the glory now?

Works cited:

Jasper Johns, “Three Flags”, 1958, Online image, Jasper Johns Online Gallery, November 18, 2004, http://www.leninimports.com/jasper_johns_gallery_11.html

“Flag”, Academic American Encyclopedia,Grolier Inc., A.A.E., U.S.A.,1986

Barraclough, E.M.C., rev. ed. Flags of the World, London,England:Frederick Warne & Co. Ltd, 1966.

Barraclough, E.M.C., and W.G. Crampton, editors, Flags of the World, NewYork: Frederick Warne & Co. Inc, 1978.

Streufurt, Duane, “The 50 Star Flag”, The United States Flag Page, November 20,1994, November 16, 2004, http://www.usflag.org/the.50.star.flag.html

Streufurt, Duane, “Old Glory!” The United States Flag Page, November 20,1994, November 16, 2004, http://usflag.org/old.glory.story.html.

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