There is one business just now1 that is doing better than it ever did, and that is the flag business. The other day, after their latest I-Alone-Am-An-American Day, I saw in the subway a construction worker with four American flags decalled on his hard hat in such a blaze of assertive, aggressive, self-righteous patriotism that you knew if you accidentally bumped into him—this was the subway—you could get those flags tattooed on your skull. There were also two mild-looking pretty girls on their way home from the rally, each carrying several flags in each fist.
The fire engines fly enormous flags as if they were going into battle with the Red Army; the garbage trucks proudly fly the flag; the buses have flags pasted on the windshields. The cops had to extract permission to wear little American flag pins on their uniforms, but now all sorts of serious, grim, suspicious citizens wear them. They come jeweled for ladies, in tie pins and clasps for gents, and you can get a flag looking furled, unfurled, in diamond shape, with diamonds, or just rhinestones.
When Allen Ginsberg got himself up as Uncle Sam for a poster, it was, after all, as Uncle Sam—like Allen and Abbie Hoffman, Uncle Sam has only one thing to wear. But the lady at the drug counter was not enjoying life à la Ginsberg when she said, “Lissen, punk, the way I feel about my flag, I’ll even wear a dress made of nothin’, nothin’ but the Flag.” There is nothing traditional, reverential, respectful in this sudden widespread use of the flag as clothing, as jewelry, as poster, as armband, on garbage trucks where Old Glory is often allowed to trail in the city’s muck. The American flag is not supposed to fly after sunset.
According to the joint resolution of Congress, June 22, 1942, to codify civilian use of the flag, the flag should be hoisted briskly and lowered ceremoniously and should never be allowed to touch the ground or the floor. When hung over the center of a street it should have the union to the north in an east-west street and to the east in a north-south street. When the flag is displayed horizontally or vertically against a wall, the stars should be at the observer’s left. It should never be carried flat or horizontally, but always aloft and free. The flag should never be used as drapery of any sort, never festooned, drawn back, or up, in folds, but always allowed to fall free.
Yet despite this, it is a fact that on great new office buildings now going up all over New York, workers leave our flag flying all night from the girders, from the roofs, from the cranes. They even paste simulations of the flag all over the job, attach political slogans to the flag. USA all the way.
The matter is serious. Our flag is being desecrated. A good American properly does not wear a flag, does not become a flag, does not tie one flag to another like a rag around his arm, does not substitute it for a crucifix or a mezuzah, does not rev it up with shiny little rhinestones. But the people who do this are not saying that it stands for one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all. What I seem to hear them saying out loud, in the heat of the demonstration, in their everlasting public anger, is: Any challenge to me is a conspiracy… Go ahead, you Commie conspiracy, I dare you not to wear one… Go on…just ask me why I wear four flags on my hat….
If your heart is not with America, get your ass out of it. Love America or leave it. Hippie, long-haired nut, peace freak, Red slime, free-talking bastard, shut up, get off the streets, disappear. You don’t wear a flag, I wear a flag, I wear it to show that you don’t, and if you ask me then you’re the enemy of my flag and my country and my God.
So the flag is worn to divide our people, to start fights and to end conversation, as several young people learned to their pained amazement when the hard hats rained blows on their heads. The flag business is to exclude objectors, dissenters, students who aren’t on their knees all day long studying accounting, people who ask questions, people who look as if they might ask a question. It is at long last a symbol of the aroused and militant working class—but, of course, this particular segment of the working class most features crane operators and other lordly specialists who from the heights of their well-packed pay envelopes look down on blacks who can’t even become plumbers’ apprentices.
But let us be honest about each other in this great new American game of flag, flag, why aren’t you wearing the flag? Of course the flag business stands for the understandable resentment by workers who do work with their bodies, who put their bodies on the line, who feel themselves unmistakably snubbed by intellectuals, students, book readers, contemplators of the human scene for any reason whatever who are supposed to have it easier—and often do. The flag business has natural, pious, even mystical roots. This country has always been strong on churches—on joining—but deadly to faith, so that anything man-made seems more worthy of public, demonstrative “loyalty” than an invisible, impalpable God. Unhappy, divided country which itself alone, in the name of patriotism, has to supply what in other countries was created by a common past, by a tradition of faith rather than of aggressive common sense.
If America ever “loses”—even to Vietnamese revolutionaries in their own country!—how can the anxious descendants of so many anxious immigrants believe that they are safe—that all material and spiritual needs are simultaneously taken care of by “America”?
We who are gathered here don’t usually have much conversation with those in the flag business—and that may be as much the result of our pride as it is of their “patriotism.” George Wald, the Nobel laureate at Harvard who made such a beautiful speech about peace to students at MIT, wrote a letter to the Times the other day offering to meet with construction workers and to talk things out with them. Professor Wald understandably described himself as a Nobel Prize winner but added as further proof of his qualifications that he came from a tough neighborhood in Brooklyn and so knew how to talk to tough guys.
This did not seem to me qualification enough, and I guess Professor Wald was not entirely sure either, for he defiantly noted that he was willing to have this confrontation although one Nobel laureate, Martin Luther King, had already been killed for his views. Not a promising beginning! Professor Wald is not more likely to reach the “working class” than are those student revolutionaries who stir up Negro high schools and then return to their pads.
This is getting to be a class matter. Those men looking down on us from the construction job across the street may understandably see us as the wrong class, the unintelligible class,2 the no-class upper class. Most of us are all too likely to agree with each other and we lose nothing by coming together with each other. We have not sufficiently faced up to the flag business. Its business is with “us”—with the ever increasing general protest against the war that many a flag-wearer must feel without being able to admit it to the other man on the job. The flag business expresses more than the panic of vice-presidents, cops, and bartenders who see the country changing, skidding out of control. It expresses more than the peculiar aggressiveness of American manners, the everlasting spitefulness of those many people in our society who have nothing in common but the fact that they are all “American.” Oh brother, do I distrust you.
Above all, the flag business is an attempt to cover up “our” defeat, to cover up the many things in our society that are wrong and that everyone knows are wrong. It covers up the fact, apparent to anyone, that we cannot win a total victory in Vietnam, that we cannot stay there forever, that we cannot stop the Vietnamese from taking over after we leave. It covers up the fact—unendurable most of all to those who have lost brothers, sons, friends in Vietnam—that over forty thousand of our men have died for nothing.
July 2, 1970