Saturday, July 4, 2009

No peeing on the flag

I'm not much of a flag-waver. Don't get me wrong, I am most thankful to have been born in this country and I believe in its ideals. I understand that the flag is a symbol of those ideals, and I respect it as such, particularly the ideals of freedom of thought and expression in civil discourse.

I understand the emotional power of the flag as a symbol, having come of age at a time when the stars and stripes were commonly seen upside down on the backside of bluejeans as an expression of protest against the Vietnam war. I have in my possession a folded flag presented as a token of appreciation for my mother's service as a Navy WAVE during World War II, and I value it beyond measure.

But I also understand that others bring their own interpretation to the flag's symbolism, often far different than mine. Those who use it as cover for hate crimes, or as a rallying cry to "take America back for white people," for example, see in it something I find reprehensible - the opposite of the meaning it holds for me.

So, wishing not to be mislabeled or my views misinterpreted, I don't wear flag pins (clearly, I have no political aspirations) or t-shirts. I don't put flag decals on the car. My mother's flag remains folded in a protective box displayed inside the house.

I respect the flag as a symbol of values I hold dear and a political system that, while imperfect, I wish to be preserved. But I don't wave it around in public. Ultimately, I see it as a symbol, and only that, not as the ideal itself. Much like the letters I type here allow me to express opinions, but are only symbols representing (with varying degrees of proficiency) the beliefs in my head and heart.

Which brings me to this morning. It rained last night, so Mr. James and I took a dry sidewalk course for his daily constitutional rather than the probably-muddy hiking trail at the end of the street. As we rounded a corner, we passed a house with miniature flags on sticks in the yard alongside the walkway, presumably placed there in celebration of today's July 4 holiday.

Mr. James, who doesn't know a flag from a fire hydrant, spied one of the stick-bound banners and began to lift his leg. I was sufficiently in the moment to notice and quickly yanked on his leash, pulling him away and averting disaster. "NO," I said firmly. "No peeing on the flag."

I steered him clear of the rest of the yard decor, and as we continued on our way, I reflected upon my instinctive reaction to the possibility of my dog relieving himself on that little piece of patriotism. The flag-on-a-stick was just a symbol, and a cheap dime-store version of it at that, the red, white and blue stamped upon a scrap of polyester, then stapled to a dowel rod by a 12-year-old in China.

Does it really matter, I wondered to myself, what Mr. James does to it?

Ultimately, I concluded that it does, for the same reason I believe I should be able to write these words -- the symbols of my ideas and opinions. You may have different words for different ideas and opinions, and I invite you to share them freely and debate them vigorously, but without vitriol or violence - a courtesy I grant to you as well.

It matters because the symbol stands for something that deserves our respect, appreciation and commitment, even if it means something different to you than it does to me.

Or, perhaps, because of just that.

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