Mending the Flag

Fort McHenry flag (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
EVERY FOURTH OF JULY, my head is filled with an unruly melange of memories: bits and pieces of our history, recalling the brilliant beings who charted a treacherous course away from kingly rule toward liberty, and the many subsequent Independence Day celebrations when orations, rather than fireworks and explosions, were the order of the day.

I don’t run with the flag-waving set.  On the contrary, I sometimes wonder whether “liberal patriotism” is an oxymoron.  On the Fourth, as the day passes more or less wordlessly, I wonder about the emotions and reservations that impede an intellectual patriotism.  Can the impediments to a matter-of-fact, 21st-century dedication to ‘the Union’ ever be redeemed?

Ministering to the sources of impaired patriotism is what I’ve nicknamed “mending the flag.”  I used to fantasize about hosting a ‘Mend the Flag’ party, where each guest would be invited to bring and share a poem, song, or personal statement expressive of his or her true feelings about the country.  I imagine offerings would run the gamut from stark to comic, from shame to outrage, from sorrow to out-and-out disavowal.   Sadly, many Americans live in a country they’re reluctant to own, disillusioned with the federal government, betrayed by its class of supposed statesmen and -women.

Why do such feelings of damaged patriotism matter?  They matter because individual liberties are dependent on the health of the collective.  The freedom and autonomy that Americans prize depends on preserving and bettering the national order.  When Americans turn away from politics in despair or disgust, they increase the odds that government will become ever more corrupt, vulnerable, misguided, and over-weaning.  As the sage once said, “All that’s necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”  When it comes to republican government, that’s certainly true.  On the other hand, the triumph this week of the gay rights cause shows what a minority, when fully mobilized and determined, can do.

Cynicism notwithstanding, disaffected Americans cannot afford to be anything but engaged.  With what political energy they have left, they must do what they can to mend the flag.

Image: The first photograph ever taken of the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’
that flew over Fort McHenry and inspired Francis Scott Key to write our national anthem.
The image dates from 1873, when naval officer and writer George Henry Preble
photographed the old flag, then on display at the Boston Navy Yard.