Honoring the Flag

Many years ago I attended a local meeting of one of those name-brand political parties, having to do with the election of a precinct-committee chair or something. Over all it was as inspiring as you would hope, but there was one event that caused a little stir and later got me thinking.

When it came time to salute the flag, one young couple balked. Whatever was expected — standing, or pledging allegiance, or placing the hand upon the heart — they didn’t do it. This was during the Cold War, and at the end of the Vietnam era, and at this distance I don’t remember which of our government’s actions they were protesting; but they got a big reaction and ultimately left the hall, amid shouts that included the suggestion that they “go back to Russia.”

Russia at that time seemed the place for people who didn’t want to fit into our society. Russians, we thought, would be the opposite of us. We imagined that their country was a place where people had no choice about how they behaved, and where dissidence would mean being banished and cut out of the political process. The irony was lost on nearly all of us that day, that we were punishing dissent in that very same way, in the name of Americanism.

We were placing form over function, revering fabric over freedom. But the American flag, I have since concluded, has a very special property. Here when we exercise freedom we may pay tribute not just to the flag but to what’s behind it, to what it really stands for. Our flag withstands burning in a way that others do not. Some people honor our flag in a way that we, and even they, may not understand.

— Scott McKee