Why Are We Waving a Flag?
Since arriving in New York, seven weeks ago, there is one question that seems to follow me around. Everytime I meet someone new I can expect to be asked a question along the lines of “What do you find most bizarre in the US in comparison to your home country?” Even though there are numerous items on my list (paying via check, floral wreaths on doors and actually using the post office to post things), there is one that stands out miles above the rest – the omnipresent American flag.
On Saturday morning while casually strolling through my new neighborhood, Bay Ridge, I counted 20 national flags in a half mile radius and in the afternoon shopping on 5th Avenue, Manhattan, I realized that my morning tally was modest in comparison. What I found most amusing were the peculiar places the flags reside: hair salons, car dealerships, restaurants, convenience stores, townhouses, boutiques, and even subway trains.
The ubiquitous national flag in America is a stark contrast to the moderate presence of the national flag in my home country, South Africa. There the national flag is primarily only on display at sport and political events. Whenever the flag is needed one digs it out from the back of the closet in the box containing miscellaneous objects and once the event is over it disappears back into the darkness where it came from. This cultural observation has lead me to question the motivation behind the American flag on all these storefronts. Are the flags merely there because everyone is doing it?
The presence of a flag, despite personal intention, belief or thought, communicates to others that one waves the flag as if one understands your nation, as if you support everything the flag stands for. The flag symbolizes patriotism and from an outsider’s perspective signifies a pledge of allegiance to everything the flag represents. Back in South Africa whenever I saw the American flag I thought of American nationalism, unity and power. With the current political climate in America the flag’s narrative toward me has changed, it currently communicates distress, uncertainty and disjointedness. This example clearly illustrates that flags speak for themselves and communicate about us indirectly, whether we are aware of it or not. Perhaps this explains why I am confused about the placement of the American flag at the above mentioned unusual locations. There seems to be a disconnect between the intent of the flag and its chosen settings.
The purpose of this piece is not my official entrée into political commentary, but merely a call for us to take a step back and think twice before waving a flag just because everyone else is doing it. I’m not saying that all flags should live in a box in the closet somewhere, but rather that we should consciously consider what messages are interwoven into a waving national flag.