U.S. Blues

Brookline Tab, September 2001

“Wave that flag, wave it wide and high,” commands the late Jerry Garcia in the song “U.S. Blues.” Coming from Jerry, this sentiment is most likely meant tongue-in-cheek. But how is it meant, coming from everyone else?

I have been asking people—from friends to neighbors to family—who are flying flags, what does it all mean? All sorts of things, it turns out. Some (most) people say, “I’m trying to show support for those in this country who are in need of healing.” I was moved by that response; I think we are all in need of healing from the September 11 events. Others are flying the flag to show that they believe America is still strong, and great; that we have not been brought to our knees by terrorism. Others are simply trying to say that they love America. No problem there.

But what about the fact that some people also fly the flag as a way to set people apart: the patriotic from the weak; the good from the bad. I fear that some people are using the flag-flying as a litmus test for how good an American you are. I worry that some people will begin to use patriotism as an excuse for hatred.

Which is why I’m not flying a flag. It means too many things to too many people, and there is the danger of being judged for it. There is the danger that the public will begin to believe that, because this terrible attack occurred, we must do everything possible to protect ourselves, including suspending civil libertiesThe point is, what makes America great is that you can opt not to fly a flag. You can even burn it. You can criticize the president, decry war, pray to Baal, and still be a good American. Because what makes America great is our Constitution, our representative government, our history of honoring individual freedom, our balance of majority rule with individual rights, and our willingness to fight for these beliefs. A good citizen is someone who honors the Constitution and the rest of the laws; who respects others’ views, who contributes to the common good. But being a good citizen is a complicated thing. It is highly individual. A good citizen can also be someone who questions a bad law, like segregation or high-stakes testing of students. That is the beauty of America: a plurality of people and opinions, working it out, coming together to build one great nation.

If we are interested in promoting healing, I would suggest we start with ourselves. We need to ask ourselves if we are the best we can be. Are we, indeed, good citizens? Good family members, good friends? We need look no further than our own backyards for hard lessons. Let me give you an example. Last Sunday, our town came together to promote a sense of community and healing around the terrible events of September 11. I brought my family, including my autistic son. But he did not understand why he was there, and felt uncomfortable. So he wandered around, talking to himself, making odd noises, waving his arms. And as I watched him, I watched others watching him. Adults, staring, pointing. Laughing. In the middle of this beautiful communal event. So, instead of focusing on the subject at hand, the healing coming together of a community, I experienced new pain at the hands of fellow townspeople.

The thought I’d like to leave you with is this: that perhaps we need to really, truly look to ourselves first and try to gain some deep insight into our own behavior and tolerance before we can really begin to make some progress out there. All the flag-waving in the world is not going to teach our children compassion and understanding if we don’t have it ourselves.