When did the American flag become the exclusive symbol of the far right? Was it during the McCarthy era in the 1950s, when the words "under God" were added to the Pledge of Allegiance to distinguish "God-fearing Americans" from the "godless Commies" of the Soviet Union? Was it during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, when Black Americans waving American flags were beaten back by white police officers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge? Was it during the Vietnam War, when politicians sporting "America: Love It or Leave It" bumper stickers on their cars sent young men off to die while condemning flag-burning protesters? Certainly by 1994 the association of the flag with right-wing politics was inescapable as Newt Gingrich presented his Contract with America, with its specious focus on flag, faith, and family. And by 2016, when Colin Kaepernick took a career-ending knee against social injustice during the national anthem, he was labeled anti-American by the soon-to-be American president.
The ultimate desecration of the flag into a symbol of right-wing extremism surely came on Jan. 6, 2021, when the flag was clutched in the fists of pathetic yet dangerous insurrectionists committing acts of sedition against the United States government, inside the Capitol itself. There, chanting, "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" the marauders beat a police officer defending the Capitol—using a pole bearing the American flag.
That moment was the nadir that has disgraced our national symbol more indelibly than any flag-burning could ever do.
When the words "under God" were added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, millions of American schoolchildren were forced to recite them year after year in mind-numbing repetition, until they had lost all meaning. I know—I was one of those children.
I was born in the midst of the horrors of McCarthyism and came of age in a nation where systemic violence against people of color was an unquestioned right, where Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down and Vietnam War protesters were beaten and hauled off to prison. And through it all, the "My Country, Right or Wrong" crowd flew Old Glory and loudly proclaimed their patriotism.
As I grew up, I recognized that the flag did not stand for me or my values—that I was not, according to the powers that be, a patriot. It stood instead as a symbol of oppression of the marginalized—that is, all those who were not straight white males (and their always-subordinate female counterparts). They got to be the patriots, which made me—and all who protested against the injustices perpetrated in the name of the American flag—unpatriotic by definition.
Fine. If I was going to be labeled unpatriotic, I saw no point in continuing to pledge allegiance to a flag that had lost all meaning for me. Except by now I was no longer one of those schoolchildren mouthing the empty words of the pledge—I was a public high school teacher required by contract to lead those children in that meaningless ritual. But I refused; it wasn't my flag. Most of my students rose automatically and mumbled the words each morning, as they'd been trained to do since kindergarten. Some remained seated. Nobody cared.
One year I had a German foreign-exchange student in one of my English classes. She told me how shocked she was by the morning pledge to the flag. "If Germans ever said a pledge to their flag," she told me, "everyone would think it was the second coming of Hitler."
The years lurched along, and as I taught To Kill a Mockingbird to my sophomores, with its horrifying scene of the killing of an innocent and unarmed Black man at the hands of white law officers, my students made the connection to Trayvon Martin ... and later Michael Brown ... and Freddie Gray ... and in growing disbelief and horror, I realized that each school year brought at least one new name to this unholy list of murdered Americans. Year after year, my students and I named them, while white supremacists waved their American flags and grew in number exponentially throughout the Obama years.
Then came the Trump administration. I had never seen so many American flags, or heard so many people pronounce themselves patriots, as I did at Trump rallies I saw on the nightly news. And on Jan. 6 Americans witnessed the beating of a police officer by a white nationalist with an American flag inside the Capitol itself as the angry white mob of insurrectionists tried to overthrow the United States government at the bidding of the American president.
These are the patriots? These are the upholders of our flag and all it supposedly stands for?
Sometimes it takes just such a moment, just such a sickening recognition of how far we have come from the ideal concept of our "more perfect union," to bring clarity to a hideous and untenable reality: Our flag has been stolen. There is grave danger in the power-mongers of this country appropriating the American flag as their tool; it becomes a representation of the few over the many. When the flag is seen as a symbol of oppression and intolerance rather than as a beacon of hope and possibility, divisiveness flourishes and inclusivity is diminished, even as our nation becomes increasingly diverse. The oppressors, and those who mindlessly support them, incite violence to cling to the exclusive power and privilege they arrogantly believe they are entitled to.
From Joseph McCarthy to Richard Nixon to Donald Trump, these pretenders calling themselves patriots and wrapping themselves in the American flag have stolen our most precious values: equality, opportunity, justice, and true freedom—a freedom of shared responsibility for one another in all our messy glory of disagreements and doubts and differences, and even—at moments—of divinity. These are the truths that we patriots hold self-evident. And I want my flag back. Δ
Diane W. Mayfield taught English in North SLO County schools for 34 years. Send a response for publication to firstname.lastname@example.org.