flags

Flagging

I am currently staying at a highly eclectic hotel in Quechee, Vermont, where the food is nothing short of fantastic. The crispy duck I had on my first night here was, quite possibly, the best thing I’ve eaten since moving to the US in 2005.  

The chef-owner is French, and her husband, who runs front of house, is British. They have been in the US for twenty years or more and, in honor of those facts, the hotel flies three flags: those of France, the UK, and the USA.  

Similarly, it’s common to see both Irish and American flags flown at an Irish bar, or flags of Mexico and the US at a Mexican restaurant, while Outback restaurants often fly both American and Australian flags.  

Inclusiveness

This is surely what flags are for in peacetime: as symbols of celebration and inclusiveness. Stetson takes a similar approach both in the horseshoe and in the Great Hall, where the flags of every US state and territory are flown alongside all the flags that have been used to represent Florida.  

The underlying theme to all these instances is, of course, that more than one flag is flown. The symbolism involved is concerned with unity through diversity. But what exactly does it mean when a home or business flies just the US flag?  

Just to be clear, I’m not asking that just as a setup line for a gag. It’s a genuine question. What does it mean?  

One AirBnB, for example, at which I stayed en route to Vermont at the beginning of this trip, was flying the US flag. I presume that, since this was in Fayetteville, North Carolina, which has a particularly close relationship with the US Army, this is intended to symbolize solidarity with those in the military. Perhaps the family even has a member who is a currently serving or who has done so in the past.  

But it seems unlikely that that is the reason for every business or family whom I see flying the US flag.  

Patriotism?

Some readers might argue that the reason is surely obvious; it is intended as a patriotic celebration of the United States. But here’s my problem with that suggestion: almost everyone I know who flies the US flag isn’t shy about letting everyone know just how much they hate everything related to the federal government.  

Now you might say that there is more to the US than the federal government, but the stars and stripes are symbolic precisely of the fact that the people (and the states) have chosen, for some purposes, to delegate certain functions to a federal government. It really doesn’t mean anything else.  

Indeed, the original US Constitution — the document that set out the very foundations of the United States — is concerned solely with the powers granted to the federal government, while the Bill of Rights is concerned solely with imposing explicit limits on those powers. So I can certainly see why the US flag is flown on federal government property.  

Toxicity

But why do individuals who complain daily about the federal “swamp” and its “overreach” want to publicly celebrate the very thing that they claim to despise?  

I ask this because, to a European, such flying of national flags in the absence of a special occasion is not something to be celebrated. It is warlike behavior. In Europe during peacetime, such behavior is associated with a toxic, pathological nationalism that is itself associated with the rise of fascism or xenophobia. In the UK, for example, pretty much the only people currently displaying the Union flag on its own will be supporters of Brexit.  

This meaning of such behavior is recognized not just in Europe. A few years ago, for example, a Canadian friend came down to Florida. On one occasion, we were passing an automobile dealership that was flying the most enormous US flag. He was visibly uncomfortable. “What’s that, Tim?” he asked. “It’s a flag”, I answered helpfully. “Yes, I can see that. But what’s it doing there?”  

I had to admit that I had no idea, and that I had wondered the same thing myself. I still don’t understand it.  

Lessons

After all, the other flags that tend to get flown in the US are the flags of the old Confederacy and associated organizations, and the flags of individual states. (I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Yankee flag flown, though presumably it is somewhere.) The symbolism in each such case is of separatism, difference, and even isolationism. As a non-American, such displays still always make me uncomfortable.  

And maybe that’s just my problem. If I choose to live here, then maybe I just have to deal with the few things that I don’t like.  

But I don’t think it is just my problem. Some people apparently view the rise of the would-be Greenland speculator as coming out of nowhere: a gross anomaly whose obvious disregard for basic proprieties makes him fundamentally un-American. But I think they’re missing the point.  

In a society that considers it generally acceptable to fly symbols of separatism on a day-to-day basis, the rise of politicians like 45 has always seemed to me to be all too possible. It’s surely time for more people to remove the flags from their eyes and take a look at events in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe.