Name a person who has a flawless relationship with their country.
We’re unwillingly thrust into a dangerously co-dependent partnership with our country from birth. In America, this is a particularly complicated affair — we cannot escape patriotism. It’s summer in Arklahoma, and the red-white-and-blue lake wear and beer coozies are quickly taking over. I own one bandana inspired by the American flag, and I wear it once a year to watch fireworks. I’m convinced of ostracization if I don’t.
Looking at the political climate and ruling government, I want to do away with anything that celebrates the country as it is today, and there’s not a ton of history I think is worthy of pretty pyrotechnics. Unfortunately, disagreeing with patriotism is directly translated into “I hate the troops” (which is so wrong but none of us have time for that discussion right now). This made last week’s Memorial Day celebrations particularly conflicting.
Memorial Day is the kick off of the Old Fort Days Rodeo, our decades-long family ritual. I’ve missed one year since I was in the womb. There are friends of my parents that have actually seen me grow up year to year at the rodeo. I own two pairs of cowboy boots and one belt buckle.
Much of this culture I have little in common with, though there was odd arena-wide unity when the announcer and clown (yes, they hire clowns as the comedic relief. It’s not as bad as it sounds) made jokes about Colin Kaepernick and no one laughed, or when they brought out a life-sized Kim Jong Un doll to the bull fighting and we were all tangibly uncomfortable. The most concerning bonding experience, to me, is the American war montage they do on the first and last nights.
Always, the national anthem is sung after prayer, and two ladies circle the arena on horseback with fringed flags. It’s a solemn event. On Memorial Day, and again the following Saturday, the precede that with audio clips of post-9/11 speeches while riders leisurely trot out with military banners, one for each branch. There’s silence, and the bridge of Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” plays. The crowd goes wild.
This is the concerning part.
The ways patriotism is written into our history sets us up for failure:
1. The national anthem, based on an 18th-century British pub song, is difficult to sing (sober) and is written about on object in a battle field. Not the countrymen, or even the reason for battle.
2. The motto, “E pluribus unum,” is disgustingly self-aggrandizing: Out of Many, One.
In Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut, a war veteran, laments all the inadequacies in our expression of American pride. He points out America has a law he claims no other nation has written about its flag: “The flag shall not be dipped to any person or thing.” This dipping in other countries is considered a “friendly and respectful salute.”
The undippable flag was a beauty, and the anthem and the vacant motto might not have mattered much, if it weren’t for this: a lot of citizens were so ignored and cheated and insulted that they thought they might be in the wrong country, or even on the wrong planet, that some terrible mistake had been made. It might have comforted them some if their anthem and their motto had mentioned fairness or brotherhood or hope or happiness and somehow welcomed them into society and its real estate.
3. Few industrialized countries encourage school children recite a pledge of allegiance — or have a pledge at all — to an inanimate object. North Korea students pledge to Kim Jong Un. It’s officially not been required in America since the mid-twentieth century, but response to NFL protests show how little that is acknowledged.
Since legal adulthood, I’ve gotten more and more wary of flag worship. Most men in the Arkansas River Valley would take insults to their mothers better than insults to the stars-n-stripes, as they unwittingly spill Coors on their flag-printed shorts or adjust their star spangled belt buckle.
It’s about honor and respect, this I understand, but the execution is my concern.
Justice will be served and the battle will rage
This big dog will fight when you rattle his cage
You’ll be sorry that you messed with the U. S. of A.
Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way
This is Keith’s bridge that causes everyone to cheer at the Old Fort Days. It was written as a response to the 9/11 attack. At the time, it was a rally cry that let terrorists know America wouldn’t be knocked down, that we’ll unite against our enemy and cannot be defeated. In the 17 years since, we are no longer the only country that has survived such a horrific event, but we are the only ones who still retaliate as though you’re the boy that broke our sister’s heart in high school.
Based on this song and our anthem, threat of violence equals love of country.
As Vonnegut said, we are quick to battle our external enemies but ignore what’s happening at home. This is what makes our unwilling family tense. To point out our own flaws this time of year is to denounce your love of America. You can’t be patriotic and self-critical.
There is a song by Mt. Joy about police brutality against minorities. Like the other lyrics mentioned, these are just as influenced by our history of violence and conquest, though the perspective is flipped: “There’s blood on the streets of Baltimore / Kids are getting ready for the long war.” Both Mt. Joy and Toby Keith call the young to step up (Keith’s line, “Uncle Sam put your name at the top of his list,” refers to the Armed Forces draft that called primarily on men aged 17–25, though hasn’t been used since 1973), debatably on opposing sides, while our anthem feebly promises the inanimate flag will stand no matter the outcome.
Mt. Joy sings in the chorus, “Cut it up, but it’s still the red, white, and the blue,” denouncing flag worship but still holding to patriotism. The Memorial Day display was once my favorite part of the entire week — it gave me chills when the flag was galloped out just as Keith sang “We’ll put a boot in your ass,” and led the other banners in a victory lap around the arena, stopping in the middle while the other riders circle round with fireworks coming out of the posts. I kid you not. This used to be my favorite part, and now it’s problematic because it still somehow brings me nearly to tears.
There has to be other ways to express patriotism that doesn’t center on conquest and defeat. It’s a tough discussion, and not just because we still lob the name “commie” as an insult in 2018. It’s like having an entire family you disagree with but you have to love them because they’re family, no matter how racist or sexist they are at Thanksgiving. I love this country, even the history, when I see those few glimpses that make me think we can do better. But loving a flag is hairy business.