Friday, November 7, 2008

On Tuesday night, the flag became ours

Grant Park was awash in American flags as hundreds of thousands awaited Barack Obama’s acceptance speech. The flag wavers were young and old and in between; they were black, white and brown. Near me were an elderly Sikh couple with turbans; they waved flags. The French kids attending college here waved our flag. The guy with dreadlocks and his daughter on his shoulder waved the flag. And the women wearing head scarves waved it, too.

When CNN announced Obama’s win, the flags punctuated the wild cheers thundering throughout the park. And when he gave his speech and against a backdrop of flags standing tall, the crowd waved theirs harder and higher.

For many years, the Republican Party has monopolized the flag -- and patriotism – and claimed it as theirs alone. This started forty years ago when anti-war youth had scorned the flag; to some of us, it conjured painful images of atrocities carried out in the name of the flag – exemplified by napalming Vietnamese children. We identified with the victims of that war – not those dropping the napalm. Jimi Hendrix’s soul-wrenching, screaming, tearing, blistering Star Spangled Banner captured our pain with exquisite accuracy.

But somehow that minority of kids in the sixties who rejected the imagery of the flag morphed, in the Republican imagination, to include everyone in the Democratic Party, the very party the kids were protesting in 1968. The Democrats had as many pro-war and anti-civil rights people as the GOP, but still, the GOP’s meme caught hold – and has lasted for forty years.

During this campaign, the GOP re-litigated the sixties and recycled their worn-out charges of anti-Americanism, launched the notion of “Real Americans” to distinguish them from the rest of us and even suggested that Congress be investigated to ferret out the un-Americans among them. Once again, they tried to narrow the idea of a flag-waving patriot to those who sign on to their platform, live in small towns and can be caricatured -- as Joe the Plumber (inaccurately) was.

They got it wrong. By claiming the flag as theirs and theirs alone, by fomenting hate and fear among their flag-wavers, and by leading with ancient grievances rather than new ideas, they got it dead wrong.

Obama’s campaign brilliantly chose to embrace the flag and not to focus on defending himself against the stew of tired old charges against his and his supporters’ patriotism, but instead to lay out his vision of what we can be as a nation. He did indeed summon “a new spirit of patriotism” – and that’s what prompted the flag waving in Grant Park. We were waving the flag not in defiance or anger as we had seen done at GOP election rallies, but in hope, aspiration, community and love – of nation and one another.

For too long the flag was used by the right as a bludgeon – thrust angrily in the face of any of us who would differ, disagree, contest, protest or dream of that mountain top. Now it is ours, too.

We will be happy to share it.

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