A few days after September 11, 2001, while Americans were just beginning to grapple with the unspeakable tragedy of that shocking terrorist attack, I was confronted with an insanely mundane problem. My car died.
It was a time of unbridled displays of patriotism. American flags were everywhere. Merchants posted flags in their storefronts, and average Americans hung flags by the front doors of their homes. And that iconic image of first responders hoisting an American flag atop the rubble of the World Trade Center was plastered on the covers of so many magazines that it’s been etched into our collective memory. These flags reassured us that, as we sing in “The Star Spangled Banner,” “our flag was still there,” that the United States had again survived. So when I went in late September to pick up my new car, an American-built Honda Civic, I wasn’t surprised to find that the dealer had placed an American flag decal in the rear window.
A few weeks later, I took the flag out of my car window. I remember thinking at the time that I didn’t need to display the American flag. I was an American; I didn’t need to tell people I loved my country any more than I needed to tell people I had two lungs and a heart.
We recited the Pledge of Allegiance every day in elementary school. It was an unusual time for the American flag. The Vietnam conflict was raging, and I remember that so-called “Real Americans” were offended when war protesters like Abbie Hoffman wore the American flag as clothing — it disrespected the flag, these Real Americans said. And I remember that in clashes between war protesters and law enforcement officers, it was the law enforcement officers who had the American flag sewn neatly into their uniforms. It became easy to associate the American flag with those right wing “America: Love it or leave it” people who accused war protesters of being unpatriotic and treasonous, and who would later turn words like “liberal” and “progressive” into insults. I was a progressive even then, and I became wary of people who displayed American flags.
It’s a funny thing, being accused of hating your country if you criticize it. We don’t tell the people in our lives we care about the most that they have spinach in their teeth because we hate them. We want the people we care about to be the best people they can be. I’ve always simply wanted the same thing for my country.
I bought a new bicycle in the spring of 2008. A few months later, I bought a few sheets of American flag stickers on the Internet and placed an American flag sticker on each side of my bike’s top tube and on the back of my bike helmet. I’m not sure why I did this. It was around the same time that then-candidate Barack Obama was taking a lot of flak from right wingers for not wearing an American flag lapel pin at campaign appearances, and then took even more flak from the same people when he did start wearing one. Right wingers had become “flagwavers,” appropriating the Stars and Stripes for themselves. How had the American flag become synonymous with right wing values? How had hating liberals become synonymous with loving your country?
In 1982, I decided to go to law school. I’d been hoping to become a professional cartoonist at the time, and the woman I was dating then was hoping to become a professional actress. I dreaded telling her that I was going to go to law school for fear that she would tell me that I’d sold out. What she said instead was this: “That’s great. The legal profession needs more people like you.” She didn’t assume the profession would change me. She thought — or perhaps hoped — that I could change the profession.
So maybe that’s why I put American flags on my bicycle: the flagwaving community needs more people like me. America isn’t just about politically conservative values. America’s also about progressive values, like the equality of opportunity and objecting to the tyranny of any religious group. And America certainly isn’t about being called unpatriotic for criticizing the government. America is especially about criticizing the government.
I rode with the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition in this year’s Pride Parade because I think it’s important for people to understand that one doesn’t have to be gay to believe in sexual orientation equality. I attached a small American flag to my handlebar for that ride because I can’t think of anything more American than the belief that every American citizen should have the same rights as every other American citizen.
And that’s why those of us who disagree with the political views of right wing flagwavers must take back the flag and display it proudly. It’s our America too.