I pity those who did not attend the football game against Washington last month. Not because we pummeled the Huskies — although that was a treat — but rather because you missed the Michigan Marching Band’s halftime show. Dedicated to the victims of Sept. 11, 2001, the band performed an arrangement celebrating New York City and the rich American musical tradition, all the while decked out in colored LED lights. For their last song, J.P. Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever,” the marching band formed a magnificent 70-yard long American flag.
At sight of the flag, the Big House erupted into cheers. That surprised me. I have always celebrated the flag; to me, it is a source of pride and a reminder of how lucky I am to live in this country. At the same time, I recognize that my association to the flag is not shared by all, especially given its currently polarizing character.
On Jan. 6, a sea of American flags, traditional and unorthodox, descended upon the Capitol building, carried by a mob bent on obstructing the democratic process. In Brazil, citizens advocating for anti-democratic reforms adopted the flag as a symbol of their struggle, and this past July, a New York farmer was labeled a Trump supporter for the sin of displaying an American flag on the side of his potato truck.
It is shameful that our nation’s most iconic symbol could be co-opted by a single political faction. According to journalist Marc Leepson in his book, “Flag: An American Biography,” the Founding Fathers did not attach much significance to the flag. The first documented reference to the flag, the Flag Resolution of 1777, simply reads,
“Resolved, That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”
There might have been fierce debate between the Founders about the flag’s meaning behind closed doors, but according to most historians, the flag was likely born out of the simple necessity to distinguish the Continental Army in the field of battle.
In the decades after the American Revolution, mythology began to crop up around the flag that masks the actual evolution of the flag within the national conscience. Did you know that Betsy Ross did not sew the first flag, or that Washington did not bring it with him when he crossed the Delaware, even if this famous painting gives that impression? It was not until the outbreak of the Civil War that the Stars and Stripes became a national symbol. Another seemingly primordial institution, the Pledge of Allegiance, was conceived at the end of the 19th century (relatively recently) to celebrate Columbus Day. The phrase “under God” was added in 1954 as a signal of anti-communism during the Cold War. Controversy over respect for the flag sparked during the Vietnam War, when anti-war advocates burned the flag as a sign of protest and reignited in 2016 when former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem.
History teaches us that the flag’s meaning has been altered over time to serve a variety of political purposes, even though the Founders did not view it as a political symbol. Why, then, does the flag continue to feature so prominently in national politics?
Perhaps reverberations from the turbulent flag-burning Vietnam era have yet to settle in the national memory. Maybe the rapid expansion of post-9/11 patriotism was immediately soured by the revelation of the U.S. military’s conduct abroad, like mass torture, and the surge in Islamophobia at home. Whatever the reason, our preoccupation with the flag as a signal of political inclination is unnecessary, harmful and deserves to be retired.
Our generation should usher in a period of New Nationalism. Take pride in the flag, not as a symbol of government, but of people. Claim it as your property. Pour into it all the hopes you have for the future of the country, and let that be your American flag. Do not let any one faction force their version of the flag upon you. If Biden loses the presidency in 2024, do not retire your flag. Keep it flying right next to your preferred candidate’s sign as a signal of your dual commitment to both your politics and your country as a whole. Direct your political energy towards organizing, protesting and campaigning as you see fit, but preserve the flag as an institution set apart from the politics and polarization of the day. The nation desperately needs to remember that we are bound by the same red, white and blue fabric, and we all have a stake in the future success of the country. By consigning the old flag to the annals of history and hoisting a new one in its stead, we take the first necessary steps towards remembrance.
Alex Yee is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.