Nick asked me a simple question this morning. We were pulling out of the parking lot at the Jewish Community Center where we swim and work out. There are several flagpoles out front. I never pay any attention to them.
“What are flags for?”
It was a stumper. I thought a bit as I looked up at the flags flapping in the wind.
“They’re symbols,” I answered.
“What’s a symbol?”
Down the rabbit hole I went, starting with the usual “uuuuh…” Flags used to be rallying points in battles and of course they let us identify American stuff and people… But really I think they’re mostly propaganda tools, something fancy and bright for folks in a collective to look up to, fluttering in the sky or clinging to a wall, a fetish to hang their collective prejudices upon, a rallying point for nationalism or gangism or whatever your ‘ism is.
Reboot. I thought all that but I didn’t say it out loud, okay? So don’t get all huffy now. What I actually said was, “flags are a thing that you look at and it makes you think about some thing.”
“Thing” is a word that a five-year-old generally gets without the need for follow-up, so I try to stick to that whenever possible. I continued. “Like the flag with the stripes and stars reminds you that you’re an American and part of America. The blue Star-of-David flag is a symbol for the Jewish community, so they fly that outside the JCC because it’s a Jewish sort of thing.”
I think Nick had stopped listening at “flags are a thing.” He stared out the car window for a few seconds after I shut up. “At school, there is one on the wall, and we do this with our hand” — he stretched out his right arm in a strange salute and then placed his hand on his stomach — “and then they say a bunch of things.”
EXACTLY, Nick. You say a bunch of things. That’s the next piece of the propaganda puzzle, the chanting of random words that inculcate you into the American nationalistic mindset, the beginning of your formal brainwashing, words that come to have no real meaning for most people but are used as political weaponry by hypocrites and snake oil sellers.
No no no, of course I didn’t say that to Nick. I said the pledge of allegiance instead, while reminding myself that despite the religious fervor of our times, “under God” wasn’t added to the pledge until 1954, more than 150 years after our nation was founded. I set that aside in my mind and focused on the last words, “justice and liberty for all.” Emphasis on FOR ALL.
“What does it mean?”
Ugh… By now I was imploding with my effort to suppress all the cynical and frustrated thoughts that were bubbling up in my head. What DOES it mean? What does it mean to pledge allegiance to a FLAG? Shouldn’t we pledge allegiance to the nation — aka our community — first? Why a fetish, a flapping piece of fabric, first? How come the same people who want to keep GOD in the pledge are okay with the idolatry built right into it? Isn’t the flag a false idol? On and on I went down the hole, pondering a random assortment of hypocrisies and lies I associate with the tide of religious nationalism taking over the world, and with the incredible anti-government sentiment that drives people to run for political office. So they can work in government, on the public tap.
Apparently Nick was struck by the sudden and inappropriately long silence in the car, or maybe my face was going off kilter.
Now that he had my attention again, he went on. “We bow to things at tae kwon do.”
We do indeed bow to the tae kwon do and American flags hanging on the wall before and after each class. Nick’s comment had the feel of a question.
“Yeah. It’s all just to show respect.”
I guess we could have talked about flags as an expression of pride and identity. We could have talked about how flags can inspire people — Olympic athletes, soldiers, immigrants dreaming of a better life in a better land. I could have told Nick a story about the wee bag of ashes I got to take home from a girl scout camp in Korea after we participated in a very moving ritual of burning a tattered old American flag to lay it to rest (I still have that baggie somewhere), or about the days when I was one of the few 5th grade dorks who volunteered to take down the school’s American flag every day because I know how to fold a flag into a proper triangle without letting it touch the ground.
American propaganda runs deep in my veins. I spent my first decade running around a military base. I’m thankful to be an American citizen. I’m proud of much of what our country has done in the course of its short history. But I just don’t have it in me these days to rally my kids to the propaganda. I’m disgusted by our polarized society, I’m turned off completely by our leadership in Congress, I’m enraged by the Supreme Court’s anti-citizen decision in Citizens United. Bleah.
It must be election season.