It is possibly the most recognised symbols across the world, and certainly no one would dispute that no other nation has the same amount of reverence for their flag as the Americans do. The Star Spangled Banner, the Stars and Stripes or Old Glory is waved at almost all public events in the US. It’s placed on commercial products from t-shirts to food and features on the porches of almost any given street.
During my frequent trips to New York one of the most striking things I witnessed was the prevalence of the American flag. When driving through the middle-class suburban towns I would lose count of how many porches and front gardens showcased the flag, proudly, atop a pole. In the area I stayed in there is a scenic road which bridges together two neighbouring towns nicknamed the ‘Causeway.’ The road is surrounded by a lake on either side with a large mountainous backdrop covered in trees. For just a second, you could easily forget you were near any civilization. That is, until you notice the flags which hang from each telegraph pole which run alongside the road. For me these flags served as a patriotic sentiment to go alongside the scenery, saying: “This is America.” Or on some days with a little more confidence: “Of course this is America.” I get a similar feeling from the 19th century painting of the Grand Canyon by Thomas Moran, where it seems as though by the establishment of Yellowstone as a national park, there is nothing truly wild about the American sublime anymore. It has been literally and metaphorically framed by America, and that’s how I saw those flags along the causeway.
Whether the effects of the flag are a positive or negative one is something only we can decide for ourselves. I’d be very interested to know how you feel about the US flag, what message or emotions does it spark in you? Do they change depending on whether it’s displayed on a commercial product or a funeral? For me, my thoughts on the flag were shaped by a number of different theories, some of which I will share with you now.
Oh, say does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
Flags conjure up the most potent sense of patriotic or nationalist feelings, and rightly so. To be patriotic we need to have an imagined sense of community, a feeling of togetherness or comradery with our fellow citizens. That symbolic grouping together usually resonates around a particular ethnic group, or as some Nationalism experts say an Ethnie1. That feeling requires cultural symbols to create tangible and shared feelings, so that we can all look upon a particular object and feel closer together. That’s why flags play such a huge role within a nation, take for instance the way in which Geographers Jonathan Leib and Gerald Webster describe them:
“…flags are ‘symbolic containers,’ with most country flags today symbolizing membership in a national citizenry. National flags therefore ‘condense’ a range of meanings and emotions pertaining to a group’s perceived common historical experience, real or imagined cultural homogeneity, and efforts to define a similarity of outlook for the future.”2
There are two things which I find really interesting from this quote. Firstly, flags are important because they are not simply colours on a piece of fabric; they contain a huge number of conflicting and shared emotions and memories, something I will expand on later. Secondly, the imagined community which it evokes is exactly that, imagined. We all know that it is impossible to know everyone who lives within a given nation, so therefore we have to imagine them3. When you think of an American, who do you see? When you think of a foreigner, who do you see? This means that through the presentation of symbols we imagine who is part of ‘us’ and who ispart of ‘them.’4
The path to reverence, how did Old Glory become the Nation’s Symbol?
The American flag didn’t, in fact, have the reverence that we all know today back when the USA was just establishing itself. When the declaration of independence was signed there was no adoption of a flag. In fact, one year later when such a law did pass, there were no specific guidelines as to how the flag should look:
“Congress did not set the dimensions, the proportions, the size of the canton or field … or even the shape of the flag. Nor did the resolution say anything about the shape of the stars or the pattern for the stars in the constellation.”5
So in true American individualist spirit, each flag maker could arrange the stars in whatever shape they wished. A case in point can be seen in the following image; a southerner’s attempt to hide the Confederate Cross within the stars during the aftermath of the Civil War. Clearly it would take some time before the American people would come to fully accept the Star Spangled Banner and what it stood for. This is also a great example of how flag’s inclusiveness has changed over time: for a Southerner the flag was seen as an oppressive force, whilst for slaves it was a sign of liberation. Skip ahead to contemporary society and the opposite may be true, those Southerners may see the flag as a symbol of traditional American values, whereas for others such as immigrants, the flag could be seen as a barrier. Remember that we’ve already established that the flag works as a symbolic boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ well it could be argued it has moved from a domestic boundary to an international one. See for example the new immigration laws in Arizona which target certain ethnic minorities.
In terms of creating national reverence, one such event can be summed up in the image opposite. A gallup poll conducted early in 2002 found that “83% of Americans plan to display a flag during the holiday weekend — up from 66% a year ago.”6
Images of the flag are often used in the context of war time (also see flag rising on Iwo Jima). They have a profound effect on the nation’s imagined community as they conjure up images of a nation under ‘threat.’ Being under threat supposes that there is someone out there who is dangerous and that there are us in here that need protecting. Once again, it reifies the cultural boundary between nations, cultures and people, manifesting itself in cultural symbols like the flag.
What does it all mean for me?
For me, it doesn’t come down to whether I should love or hate the use of flags. I think what is most important, and that I hope this blog might begin touch upon, is the importance of being reflexive on how powerful such a symbol can be. What’s more, I think it’s important to try to look at how our position within society reflects our view of cultural symbols and how they can be interpreted or felt by others. Benedict Anderson argues that the strong imagined comradery which comes from symbols like the flag “makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.”7
With such a powerful social and cultural force, I think we all need to closely examine what the flag means to us, to others, and whether ultimately they have a positive or negative impact on people all over the globe. Please share your thoughts on your own country, or other country’s flags and what they mean to you.
1 Smith, A. (2009) Ethno-Symbolism and Nationalism, Oxon: Routledge.
2 Leib, J. And Webster, G. (2007) ‘Rebel with(out) a cause? The contested meanings of the Confederate battle flag in the American South’ in Eriksen, T. And Jenkins, R. (2007) Flag, Nation and Symbolism in Europe and America, Oxon: Routledge. Page: 31.
3 Anderson, B. (1991) Imagined Communities, London: Verso.
4 Jenkins, R. (1997) Rethinking ethnicity, London: Sage.
5Leepson, M. (2005) Flag: An American Biography, New York: St. Martin’s Press. Page: 22.
6Gillespie, M. (2002) ‘Americans Feeling More Patriotic This Independence Day’ [Online] Available: http://www.gallup.com/poll/6337/Americans-Feeling-More-Patriotic-Independence-Day.aspx [Accessed 19 April 2012].
7Anderson, B. (1991) Imagined Communities, London: Verso. Page: 7.