Over the past two years, I have been pondering what it means to be a citizen of the United States. Well, that isn’t true. I have always pondered it. But as the conversation becomes more and more complicated, as people are interpreting the Constitution to fit their needs, as “being American,” is being defined by more and more limited definitions, I have been thinking about what it means to be us (and US). More specifically, I have been considering the obsession we have with the symbolism of the nation. Particularly, the flag.
The flag is a rectangular piece of fabric, sometimes one piece, sometimes stitched together. The flag has seven, horizontal red stripes alternating with six horizontal white stripes that symbolize the original colonies. At the upper left (a blue field with 50 stars, one for each state). Over the course of post-revolution history, the flag has changed based on the number of states.
But, what does it mean?
It seems that people are quick to put one on a truck, or a pin, or hang one in front of a house. Others have shorts that resemble the flag. And everywhere you go, people salute. Say the pledge. Blast the national anthem. But, how often do people actually think about what it represents?
To be a citizen of the United States, it seems that you should uphold the virtues of the United States. (Now, I bet some of you are wondering why I am not using the term America. Because there is a lot of America. Mexico, Canada are America. Honduras, Costa Rica, and Panama are America. Brazil is America. Venezuela is America. Guyana is America.) Chanting USA, USA, or MAGA, MAGA isn’t being a citizen. It is being loud. It is being part of the crowd. It is about feeling like you are doing something.
It seems that people are distilling the republic down to bullet points of convenience, slogans, and cherry-picked statements to further their own agenda. We are desperately trying to simply our ideas. Therefore, we obsess over the flag.
The United States is more than that.
In the movie, “The American President,” the character Andrew Shepherd (played by Michael Douglas) says at one point, “America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship. You've gotta want it bad, 'cause it's gonna put up a fight. It's gonna say, 'You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.' You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag. The symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Now show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the land of the free.”
To be a true citizen, we have to hold dear those truths that are self-evident.
However, people are becoming fixated with just the flag. Or the anthem. It is an anthem of war. It seems that we are transfixed with simplicity. We fly the flag, we wear the flag, we put an applique on our car, and we are citizens.
In fact, it is more than that. We are infatuated with this simplicity. People wear the cross without thinking about what it means to act like a Christian. People have a peace symbol without thinking about the complexity of peace. People wear an anarchy symbol without considering the human condition.
We have become a reductionist society where a symbol replaces thought. Where a slogan replaces consideration. Where a vitriolic tweet has become policy.
Colin Kapernick was not protesting the flag. Or the anthem. He was protesting the treatment of black citizens of the United States. Yet, it is easy to say he is un-American. He isn’t. In fact, it is the opposite. He is ultimately a citizen. He is protesting. He is using his freedom of speech. He is challenging the gang mentality of the dominant class.
Right now, we are oversimplifying life for convenience. We don’t want to think. We can react to bullet points.
I implore everyone to commit themselves to thinking. Research ideas. Consider alternatives. Don’t disagree just because you are supposed to.
What does it mean to be a citizen of the United States?
Don’t be common.
This country is complex. We have many ideas, viewpoints, and cultures. This is why we are wonderful.
Celebrate this country through being engaged, thoughtful, and considering everyone. We ALL have a right to live. To be free. To be happy.
Help us get there.
With the exception of a year, I have been a teacher or a student for my entire life. I have taught on many different levels. I have been a middle school teacher (okay, for one semester for student teaching...because of this, I have a profound respect for middle school teachers), high school, undergraduates and graduate students. I have coached soccer in youth leagues and high school. Education is in my blood.