We’ve heard a lot about flags lately and I’d like to comment on the contrasting styles of American sentiment and British cynicism. This difference in style might also account for our nations’ different perceptions of each other’s sense of humor. We need a Special Relationship to reconcile our differences.
I followed with interest controversy over the Confederate flag, admiring those who, understanding its history, agreed to its lowering; repelled by those who knew its significance to those whose oppression it represented, and wanted to preserve it anyway. Flags are indeed symbolic.
Flags were designed to rally their supporters on a battlefield and to establish group identity. The Union Jack combined the flags of England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland in 1606. Today the Union Jack and England’s flag of St George have been hijacked by UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) and football hooligans. It’s funny how those who see themselves as supreme are anything but.
If my word had any weight at all I would apologize sincerely to the Irish for England’s oppressive actions in Ireland, for their callousness in the 19thcentury famine and in Northern Ireland during the 20th, troubles entirely of its own making as the government encouraged Scottish protestant migrants to settle in the north.
British history is full of shameful examples of nationalism. So is America’s.
My patriotism is aroused when I see Foot Guards Trooping the Colour (as the Queen takes the salute on Horse Guards Parade on her official birthday) wowing the world with their drill, splendid in their scarlet uniforms and black busbies. I regret their switch to modern stubby rifles on parade. The Union Jack is mostly associated with Royal ceremonial occasions. We like to wave flags at processions, but paper flowers might work just as well.
Military music is thrilling, as it’s designed to be. I recall the resonance of drum beats in my chest as a child, as the military Band passed in Trafalgar Square. But Nationalism should be scrutinized wherever it raises its head, because it’s usually at another nation’s expense.
Schools and other institutions in Britain do not promote allegiance to the flag. If they did I would have cautioned my children to examine historical events and implications before pledging allegiance to anything, just as I cautioned them to be open minded about religion and many social issues. I suppose that’s how we raise little cynics.
We cheer on our athletes and sing the National Anthem at Olympic Games and International sports matches, but hardly anybody owns a Union Jack and I know of no one who possesses their own flag pole. We may dust off flag bunting from the attic to decorate street parties during a Coronation or Jubilee, just as one might put up Christmas lights in December, celebrating an occasion.
I’m in awe of the sacrifice of America’s military men and women who were sent to Iraq and Afghanistan for a year at a time, often more than once, trained to do their duty without question, albeit in wars that did not need fighting. Their young families are not given sufficient credit for their endurance of loved ones’ long absence, knowing they were in harm’s way, subject to snipers’ bullets and explosions. How do you settle a small child to sleep at night, worrying about Daddy or Mom thousands of miles away? They must know that some military parents come home in coffins, or missing limbs. What does it do for a boy whose Dad used to kick a ball with him in the yard, seeing him without legs or blinded by his injuries? That child’s grief is just beginning.
While saying “Thank you for your service” Congress quibbles about funding veterans’ health care. The suicide rate among veterans is now up to 8,000 a year in the aftermath of war and the effects endure: waiting lists of veterans seeking health care are up 50% on last year’s numbers. The Department of Veterans Affairs faces a $2.7 billion budget shortfall. A petition to Congress to access funds puts them at odds with Republican lawmakers who advocate tax payer-funded care from doctors outside the department’s health system. I think that’s called passing the buck.
So forgive me if I think holding one’s hand on one’s heart, pledging allegiance, leaves something to be desired when the system is called upon, and fails, to support the brave people who answer the nation’s call to duty.
Others put it better than I:
James Baldwin: “I love America more than any other country in the world, and exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
Edward Abbey: “A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government.”
Samuel Johnson: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”
George Bernard Shaw: “You’ll never have a quiet world till you knock the patriotism out of the human race.”
Chris Hedges: (Death of the Liberal Class) “The wounded, the crippled, and the dead are, in this great charade, swiftly carted offstage. They are war’s refuse. We do not see them. We do not hear them. They are doomed, like wandering spirits, to float around the edges of our consciousness, ignored, even reviled. The message they tell is too painful for us to hear. We prefer to celebrate ourselves and our nation by imbibing the myths of glory, honor, patriotism, and heroism, words that in combat become empty and meaningless.”
Banksy: (Wall and Piece): “People who enjoy waving flags don’t deserve to have one.”