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In 2020, I wrote an essay titled “Why I fly an American flag.” Although I referenced the flag, it was mostly a tangible way to talk about my dad, who died in 2015.
A few days after the essay was published, at a Fourth of July gathering, some of my kids teased me, saying that flying the flag sounded right wing.
“The American flag doesn’t belong to any one group,” I protested. “Besides, the story was really about Grandpa.”
Still, their words gave me pause. I knew the flag was increasingly co-opted. But, as I wrote in that essay, I flew it as a symbol of hope. I was trying to remain optimistic that we, as a country, would survive; that, as the famous sentence goes, the moral arc of the universe would ultimately bend toward justice.
Now, two years later, my optimism is ebbing and I’m worried about that moral arc. Like so many others, I wonder if our fragile democracy can hold on.
I’ve always consciously thought of myself as an American. When my mom let me pick wallpaper for my bedroom in fifth grade, I chose a red, white and blue quilt pattern that included colonists in tricorn hats. I wonder now if I was influenced by the hoopla of the Bicentennial.
I loved reading American history, too, particularly biographies like the “Childhood of Famous Americans” series and the American Heritage books about U.S. presidents. As I got older, I moved beyond these sanitized, perky tales and delved into more complex, sad and inglorious truths.
I still include American in the palette of who I am, but I’m less secure about it these days. It almost seems like identifying as an American – or flying a flag – means that I want to go backward or pretend everything about the past was great. I don’t.
Among some people I know, talk of the future often turns to moving to Canada or a European country. Not long ago, I mentioned this to a friend who’s a minister and poet.
“Really, where are you going to go, Nancy? You can’t run away from evil and authoritarianism. It’s everywhere,” she said.
Neil Steinberg, in a recent column in the Chicago Sun-Times, was equally dismissive.
“Now is not the time to abandon ship,” he said, referring to Americans moving to Canada. “Now is the time to chain yourself to an oar.”
What does it mean to chain myself to an oar? I’m just an average citizen. Other than voting, educating myself and staying engaged, I don’t know what else I can do.
It helps a little, though, to articulate my feelings and beliefs.
I don’t buy into American exceptionalism. But I do buy into American ideals, such as pluralism, self-government and the rule of law.
I don’t like excessive bravado and boosterism. I’d rather see the United States act more like the people I respect and admire the most – people who aren’t defensive, who listen carefully and work to right wrongs; people who know themselves, both their strengths and limitations; people who understand the value of community and the common good.
This probably sounds like I’m still that girl in the Bicentennial bedroom. I’m not. My eyes are wide open.
So maybe it’s just cognitive dissonance that makes me lean in to hopefulness: If I call myself an American and I’m not leaving, then I have to believe this country can do better and be better. I have to hold on to my oar and do what I can to keep this creaky, complicated vessel moving forward.