Last week the student government at the University of California-Irvine passed a misguided resolution banning the display of all flags, including the American flag, from some public areas on the campus. The resolution said that “[t[he American flag has been flown in instances of colonialism and imperialism,” adding that flags “construct paradigms of conformity and sets homogenized standards.”
The student government’s executive branch vetoed the resolution, but UC-Irvine students and faculty are still embroiled in a debate over the meaning of the flag. Meanwhile, Republican state legislators in California have proposed a state constitutional amendment that would prohibit state-funded universities and colleges from banning the U.S. flag. After the UC-Irvine administration condemned the flag-banning resolution, the Daily Bruin, the student newspaper at UCLA, another campus in the large UC system, called their action a contemporary version of “Cold War McCarthyism.” The rightwing American Thinker magazine called the students’ resolution an example of the “anti-American brainwashing of the American education system.”
So far the controversy is following a familiar script. According to conventional wisdom, conservatives wave the American flag while leftists want to burn it or ban it. But the UC-Irvine students who adopted the ban, and consider themselves leftists, fundamentally do not understand that the American flag does not represent the U.S. government or any particular viewpoint. We battle over what it means, but all Americans—across the political spectrum—have an equal right to claim the flag as their own. Contrary to what the students claim, the American flag does not signify conformity. The ways we express our patriotism are as diverse as our nation. How one expresses one’s patriotism depends on the core values one associates with the United States.
Some people believe that people who display the American flag on their homes, cars or clothing embrace a conservative “my country, right or wrong” form of patriotism. But to many Americans, patriotism means loyalty to a set of principles, and thus requires dissent and criticism when those in power violate those standards. As Martin Luther King said in a speech during the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott: “The great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right.” Progressives understand that people can disagree with their government and still love their country and its ideals.
Indeed, throughout U.S. history, many American radicals and progressive reformers have proudly asserted their patriotism. To them, America stood for basic democratic values—economic and social equality, mass participation in politics, free speech and civil liberties, elimination of the second-class citizenship of women and racial minorities, a welcome mat for the world’s oppressed people. The reality of corporate power, right-wing xenophobia and social injustice only fueled progressives’ allegiance to these principles and the struggle to achieve them.
A case in point is the Pledge of Allegiance, written by Francis Bellamy, a Boston-based Baptist minister and Christian socialist, in 1892. Bellamy wrote the pledge for Youth’s Companion, a popular magazine for young people. A few years earlier, the magazine had sponsored a largely successful campaign to sell American flags to public schools. The magazine hired Bellamy to organize a campaign to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery. Bellamy gained the support of the National Education Association, President Benjamin Harrison and Congress for a national ritual observance in the schools, and he wrote the Pledge of Allegiance as part of the program’s flag salute ceremony.
It was the Gilded Age, an era of major political and social conflict. Reformers were outraged by the widening gap between rich and poor, and the behavior of corporate robber barons who were exploiting workers, gouging consumers, and corrupting politics with their money. Workers were organizing unions. Farmers joined forces in the Populist movement to leash the power of banks, railroads and utility companies. Progressive reformers fought for child labor laws, against slum housing and in favor of women’s suffrage. Radicals were gaining new converts.
In foreign affairs, Americans were battling over the nation’s role in the world. America was beginning to act like an imperial power, justifying its expansion with a combination of white supremacy, manifest destiny and spreading democracy. At the time, nativist groups in the North and Midwest as well as the South were pushing for restrictions on immigrants—Catholics, Jews, and Asians—deemed to be “polluting” Protestant America. In the South, the outcome of the Civil War still inflamed regional passions. Many Southerners, including Civil War veterans, swore allegiance to the Confederate flag.
Bellamy (cousin of radical writer Edward Bellamy, author of two popular books, Looking Backward and Equality) believed that unbridled capitalism, materialism and individualism betrayed America’s promise. He hoped the Pledge of Allegiance would promote a different moral vision to counter the rampant greed he thought was undermining the nation. Bellamy initially intended to use the phrase “liberty, fraternity and equality,” but concluded that the radical rhetoric of the French Revolution wouldn’t sit well with many Americans. So he coined the phrase, “one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all,” intending it to express a more egalitarian vision of America. (The original version of the Pledge did not include the phrase “under God.” It was added by Congress in 1954 when many politicians thought the nation was threatened by godless communism).
Since the American Revolution, each generation of progressives has expressed an American patriotism rooted in democratic values and that rejects blind nationalism, militaristic drum beating and sheep-like conformism. They have viewed their movements—abolition of slavery, farmers’ populism, women’s suffrage, workers’ rights, civil rights, environmentalism, gay rights and others—as profoundly patriotic. They believed that America’s core claims—fairness, equality, freedom, justice—were their own.
For example, in October 1967, 82-year-old Norman Thomas—a Christian minister, a lifelong pacifist, and the leader of America’s Socialist Party—took the podium to address a meeting of college students in Washington, DC. Many were angry at the United States for conducting what they considered an immoral and imperialist war in Vietnam. Over the previous few years of escalating demonstrations, protesters would occasionally burn the American flag. That symbolic act, inevitably highlighted on TV news and featured in the next day’s newspapers, led many Americans to conclude that people who opposed the war also hated the United States. Thomas, as stalwart a foe of the Vietnam War as anyone, raised the moral stakes by proclaiming, “I don’t like the sight of young people burning the flag of my country, the country I love. A symbol? If they want an appropriate symbol, they should be washing the flag, not burning it.”
America now confronts a new Gilded Age. The gap between rich and poor is wide and widening. Although the economy has improved in recent years, the richest 1 percent have gobbled up most of the benefits. Americans are feeling more economically insecure than at any time since the Depression. Polls indicate that they are upset by the unbridled selfishness and political influence-peddling by large corporations. They are angry at the growing power of American-based global firms who show no loyalty to their country, outsource jobs to low-wage countries, avoid paying taxes and pollute the environment.
Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart, promoted the motto “Buy American.” But today the retail giant, now owned by his heirs, imports most of its merchandise from Asia, much of it made under sweatshop conditions. (Ironically, most American flags are made in China.)
We are, once again, battling over immigration and who belongs in America. Some rightwing groups and talk-show pundits, calling themselves patriots, have even challenged the citizenship of our president. These trends have triggered a growing grassroots movement demanding stronger regulations on big business to protect consumers, workers and the environment from abusive corporations, living wages, fairer trade and higher taxes on the very rich to pay for better services.
This movement, which embodies the idea of “liberty and justice for all,” reflects America’s tradition of progressive patriotism. Although the students at UC-Irvine might not know it, conservatives and conformists have never had a monopoly on Old Glory.
Peter Dreier teaches politics at Occidental College. His latest book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books).