All right, you great, big, bawdy, benevolent babe—I know we’ve had our issues.
On this end: war protests, flag burnings, jeering returning soldiers, torched cities, rejection of corporations and the almighty dollar as the true symbol of the republic.
Sitting out the Star Spangled Banner, lampooning every tradition, all those clouds of pungent smoke in the park.
Peace, love and moral mayhem.
On yours: the shameful treatment of Native Americans, blacks, women and gays, ill-advised invasions, coddling dictators, busting the unions and their working people, and at all costs making the world safe for the military-industrial complex.
I had a hard time for the longest time sidling up to you and your flag, given some of the things done under its banner and the dubious company it sometimes kept.
Now: I don’t want to suggest that all is forgotten. Memory is too important and precious as reminder and guide, and those not steeped in and accountable for their history are doomed to repeat it (or at least make similar mistakes, equally ill-informed).
But—and this is important, so please hear me out—I forgive you and I love you.
And I want my flag back.
For too long, I ceded patriotism (and God, but that’s another letter) to my friends and family from ConservativeLand, a seemingly distant country where they had barricaded themselves and claimed to have sole possession of your cherished symbols and precepts.
I allowed my criticism of you—my holding your feet to the fire of your highest, most noble ideals—to sound like vilification and distaste rather than a loving plea.
It was inartful, I admit, and a little misguided, and conservatives made a mountain of it, accusing me falsely, but effectively, with my unwitting collaboration, of not loving you and of holding everything you stand for in contempt.
When in reality, I was besotted with what you stood for, and beside myself when your actions—or the actions of your supposed representatives—didn’t match it. (J.Edgar Hoover? Joseph McCarthy? Now just how did that happen?)
But enough now. Enough bickering over whose flag this is, and whose God sends the breeze through it.
You have come a long way, and so have I. As have we all.
I can’t help but notice lately how so many more of us are huddled under you in a true rainbow of colors and orientations. You’d asked for huddled masses, and boy, did the universe deliver! (With a little help from a vigilant Supreme Court and the goodness, truly the inherent, important-to-remember goodness, of your people.)
A rainbow flag celebrating the entire human pageant, in all its glorious variety, flies under you now, flapping for all the world to see.
And that divisive, exclusionary flag of the Great Insurrection? Persona non grata in this new America that is ever a-birthing, ever struggling in its messy, loud, public soul-baring way, typical of us since our portentous, earth-shattering bounce onto the world stage 239 years ago.
The truth is that I have always admired you, immigrant that I am myself.
I know that some of my fellow liberals persist in blaming you for just about every ill out there, expecting Snow White with her wand to float above the world stage, instead of a struggling nation among other struggling nations, occasionally throwing sharp elbows, imperfect in an imperfect world, soiled as we all are by the original sins that have and always will bedevil our species.
I have learned not to expect perfection or purity, so long as the lurching, awkward, well-intentioned slog ahead continues to bend more or less in step with the arc of the moral universe that those more visionary than I have posited as our true trajectory.
So I’m sorry about the misunderstandings over the years. Let’s blame it on youth—both yours and mine!
But we’ve aged a bit since then. Wisdom and mellowing does come, right amidst the tragedy of life as we receive it and the intermittent stupidity in which we are fated to indulge.
That’s all right, though. It’s all part of the mix, a spicy cocktail of a thousand different ingredients, shaken to ’n fro, mixed with ice and scorched by fire, ready always and again to slake the thirst of the multitudes huddled and yearning to be free, free at last, great God almighty, free at last.
Pete Seeger, hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955, vilified as anti-American and a Communist, came to the Lincoln Memorial in January, 2008, to celebrate and sing with Bruce Springsteen and several hundred thousand others in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial as an African-American was inaugurated the president of the United States. A great, redeemed, and redeeming country indeed…
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Deep appreciation to the photographers:
Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos grace the rotating banner at the top of this page. Some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Photo of Yankee Doodle illustration by Stuart Rankin, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/24354425@N03/
Fireworks flag and U.S./rainbow flags illustration by Beverly, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/people/walkadog/