Sunday, May 23, 2010

Flying the Flag - US Patriotism

The boundaries between the real and the virtual worlds are becoming increasingly blurred. It is possible to spend real dollars on objects which only exist within a specific game or website. One of the pioneers of this approach to gaming is Zynga with its highly popular game Farmville. Earlier today my wife was discussing with me the possibility of buying a set of flags, representing the USA and the country of my birth, for her virtual farm. This was a really cute idea and I was touched deeply by the suggestion. However when she came to purchase them she noticed a marked disparity between these and other virtual objects with no functional use. The flag was 16 Farmville coins, equivalent to 16 real US dollars. Flags granted almost no xp (experience) which is used to progress levels in the game. They were priced significantly higher than many other non-functional objects and there were considerable examples of cheaper items which gave much more xp. It seemed nothing less than a tax on patriotism.

Back in my original country it is only fairly recently that the national flag has had a significant public profile. Obviously it was flown on government (federal) buildings and some publically-funded institutions but ordinary people rarely displayed it. Indeed finding someone wearing a t-shirt with the flag on it meant that you had uncovered either a fascist-sympathizer or an extreme eccentric patriot of the kind only one step away from the strait-jacket. It was one of our greatest mistakes that we let the fascists usurp the flag, turning what should have been a proud symbol of all we stood for, into a representation of everything that revolted us. Our flag stood not for unity but instead divided us with prejudice and hatred.

Therefore it was a surprise to first visit America and find that both the US Flag and State flags were everywhere. Not just on public buildings but stores, particularly car dealerships, schools, and hanging outside the majority of homes. Pretty much every item you can buy in a store you can find a version with Old Glory emblazoned on it. Over here the flag is serious business. There are a detailed set of regulations, known as The Flag Code, which cover its display and general usage. The Flag code is law but its provisions are only binding on federal and military institutions and officials rather than private citizens. However some citizens and websites seek to enforce the code by drawing attention to infrigements. Ironically most commercial uses of the flag image are prohibited by the code, though these are widespread.

The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing - The Flag Code, section 8(j)

Americans are proud of their country and rightly so. It is good so see their pride in what the flag stands for. However their patriotism is one of the most misunderstood aspects of their culture when it comes to how they are viewed by the rest of the world. "God Bless America" signs are common here reflecting simply a general sense of pride and patriotism. However because the signs mention America, and only America, for some they reinforce a perception of the country as isolationist and aggressive. For them the missing lines from the message are ".. and only America.. and shit on the rest of you". This is unfair but it is a difficult perception to challenge particularly when the US is deemed to be utilizing its military and economic might to enforce its will on smaller countries.

There is much about patriotism which is positive. However it is important to recognize that it can be divisive. Excessive zeal can be scary and I have encountered this side of American patriotism personally and I have never forgotten the effect it had on me.

I was in the USA visiting a friend who had a child at Sherrod Elementary School who was playing in a concert that night. There was a break for a meal during which a small ceremony took place with students marching behind the US Flag. Now Texas law requires the daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance a decision which is not without controversy. The ceremony ended with the speaking of the pledge. For a few moments I was phased, I had encountered nothing like this in my country and I was not sure how to respond as the parents started rising to their feet and speaking.

After a moment of reflection I decided it was not appropriate for me to participate in any way in the ceremony. I was not a citizen of the United States and hence was not in a position legally to pledge anything to it. If I were to join in, speaking meaningless and non-binding words, for me it diluted the genuine sentiment of the other participants. Having made my decision I kept my mouth tightly closed and became aware a few seconds later that a number of the parents were glaring intently at me. This probably wasn't my most embarrassing moment in the US, but it definitely was the one that I, a guest in the country, felt most uncomfortable and unwelcome.

Doubtless the parents felt that I was being disrespectful but I do not feel that I was. This was not my country or my flag. I think I would have set a worse example for their children if I showed them it was acceptable to speak oaths without conviction. When I hear something like the Pledge, I make the assumption this is not the simple repeating of text learned by rote, but words that have been closely analysed and reflecting sentiments that are held deeply.

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