It is not a federal holiday. It is not traditionally a day off for workers or an excuse for a family barbecue. But today is officially Flag Day in the United States, an opportunity to examine that which unites us and the meaning of the nebulous word “patriotism.”
Indeed, the notion of patriotism can be confusing these days. Webster’s defines it as “love for or devotion to one’s country,” an interpretation that most Americans likely would agree with. Beyond that, there is much disagreement in how citizens demonstrate that love.
The fact that Flag Day arrives in the midst of public congressional hearings into the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol adds to the scrutiny of patriotism and our national symbols and how we express devotion to country.
Thousands of people egregiously believed that attacking a citadel of democracy was somehow patriotic. It wasn’t; it was violent and illegal and seditious. And while rioters carried numerous American flags during the attack, they also waved flags affiliated with the Confederacy and white supremacist groups.
Symbols can be powerful unifiers and identifiers, expressing our affiliation with a particular group or ideology. Donald Trump metaphorically wrapped himself in the flag throughout his presidency and literally hugged a flag on at least one occasion, hoping that his faux patriotism would obfuscate his undermining of our nation’s ideals. That his grifting continues to gaslight a large segment of the public defies explanation.
Then again, many Americans have long embraced the stars and stripes without a full understanding of their meaning.
On June 14, 1777, the Second Continental Congress passed a proclamation stating, “Resolved, That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” That original design, of course, has been updated to include 50 stars representing the 50 states. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed June 14 to be Flag Day; and in 1949, Congress officially established National Flag Day.
Yet it is interesting to witness that many Americans who profess devotion to the flag violate simple dictums of the U.S. Flag Code. Among them: “The flag should never be used as wearing apparel”; “the flag should never have placed upon it, nor on any part of it, nor attached to it any mark, insignia, letter, word, figure, design, picture, or drawing of any nature”; “The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever”; and “it should not be embroidered on such articles as cushions or handkerchiefs and the like.”
It is easy to find repeated abuses of the Flag Code, which makes Flag Day an appropriate time to assess the meaning of our national symbol. As journalist Terry Ruggles explains: “The flag is so important that its history tells the story of America itself. It represents the freedom, dignity, and true meaning of being an American. It has been with us through our war times, our sad times, but also in times of our greatest joys and triumphs.”
Those greatest triumphs come when this nation lives up to its creed that all people are created equal. They come when we embrace opportunity and equality for all, not only for those with a self-serving vision of this nation.
Our flag represents those moments, but also our continued struggle to realize them. So, indeed, does our acknowledgment of Flag Day and an exhortation to fly the flag not only today, but every day.