Each time I teach, I offer my students the chance to write about the American flag. One option asks them to notice how many times and in how many situations they encounter the flag or its image in a 24-hour period. Does the proliferation of the flag as a "text" enrich or diminish its meaning? The following essay was written by a freshman, and I'm posting it with his permission. I will be happy to forward any comments his way.
Patriotism for Sale
by Korey C.
I pledge allegiance to the bikini top, the cell phone cover, the sugar cookie, and the boxing gloves of the United States of America, and to the republic for which they stand, one nation under god indivisible with liberty and justice for all. Is this what America has become? Is this the only strength the symbol of liberty and justice has left? Is it possible that the flag, the symbol of a great nation, stands for nothing more than cheap vendor’s merchandise and the faults of a country? The world is changing and doing so every day (for better or worse is up to the individual), but hear what I, a single voice in a sea of opinion, have to say.
I am nineteen years old, an American, and the son of an Irish American man and a Korean American woman. My parents both attended college but only my father finished and obtained a four year degree. They both, undeniably, came from different backgrounds but have been loyal Americans their entire lives. They vote every year and always make a point to fill me in on whatever information they can find on each presidential candidate. On both sides of my family are grandparents, uncles, and cousins with military background, so both my parents know the dedication and strength it takes to serve our country. Now with all of this in mind, I recently realized that through my entire life not my parents, brothers, or I have ever owned a single possession that had the image of the flag upon it. The sad truth is that many people will read this and say, “How American can you really be if you don’t own anything with the flag on it?” Perhaps they are right, but as I look at the country I live in I do not see the America that so many people believe it to be. I see a nation full of discrimination, poverty, greed, and arrogance with the flag as its calling card.
How our forefathers would weep if they saw what the flag has become today. After walking through the mall for less than an hour I was able to fill an entire page, consisting of three columns, with useless “patriotic” merchandise. Swimsuits, baseball caps, cookies, press-on nails, boxing gloves, purses, even a cross embellished with the stars and stripes. Out of all these bizarre items a few in particular caught my attention. The first, and most puzzling, was the large metal cross that had been painted over with the stars and stripes. What exactly is the message here? Perhaps it is an item for Christian individuals who are very patriotic and simply want to express both their religion and devotion to their country. Then again, could it be implying that “true” Americans are both Christian and patriotic? Is a specific religious background now part of the criteria to be a good American?
It is messages like this that have affected the country for years. Before my grandparents, on my mother’s side, came to America they were followers of Buddha, but not long after reaching New York City in 1946 they converted to Catholicism. I asked my Halmeoni (Grandmother) why she and my Harabeoji (Grandfather) converted after coming to America. The only answer I could muster out of her was “It was time.” It is known that South Korea was and is divided with half the population being Christian of some sort and the other half Buddhist. The religious backgrounds are usually set by decades of family lines so conversion is rarely seen. So I was shocked that my grandmother, who is one of the strongest women I know, fell victim to a sort of national peer pressure. So here is America telling the peaceful Asian couple to buy a flag, convert, and fit in. The symbol for liberty is needed to shield others from discrimination.
Then I saw items as simple as a cookie being eaten by a small child. Could there be any greater insult to the American flag than slapping it on a cookie, throwing it in the oven, and then passing it out to small children to consume? The flag is supposed to a sacred symbol Americans can stand behind with pride. I can recall being yelled at in boy scouts when I was no older than six for letting the flag touch the ground when I was color guard for the evening meeting. Now here it is resting comfortably in the belly of a toddler. The sheer thought of owning a pair of “patriotic” boxing gloves or cell phone covers should be enough to show how watered down the image of the flag has become. The flag is a supposed to be a beacon to light our darkest hour and yet it has become a candle flickering in the wind. With it we can barely see our own noses in front of us, much less where the country needs to be.
When is the last time you can recall the nation being unified behind the flag? The last time I remember the entire country being in agreement with the flag was 9/11. Every house as far as the eye could see flew an American flag in its front yard. Flags hung in windows, from mailboxes, car windows, and of course every business establishment in town. The flag was a beacon saying “Hey look at me I’m an American and I’m patriotic, so talk to me or buy my stuff.” It is sad to me that through all the hardships our country has faced over the years the only thing that can bring everyone together is a direct attack. The people need a common enemy to face together. They do not care for death caused by natural disaster, disease, or gang violence as long as they don’t “know” that it is going on. They only become one voice when there is someone the entire country can hate together. Americans are the spoiled children of the world; they do what they want when they want.
The first thing that comes to mind when I see and American flag is, sadly, the Bush Presidency. Almost instantly upon seeing a flag I relate it to the war and all the disaster America has had to endure during George Bush’s term in office. Sometime I hate myself for this and only want to see the flag as the flag, but no matter how hard I try I can not help but go straight to president. I think there are many people out there who share my problem which is why since 9/11 we have seen the flag almost completely removed from suburban areas. I know that on my hometown street the flag flew in just about every house’s yard and when I left home for school it flew in only four. I think that’s the country’s biggest problem; when things are not going the way everybody wants we immediately blame the president whose calling card has become the flag. It is sad and very unfair in a way. Now do not get me wrong. I’m not exactly pro Bush, but then again I’m not exactly pro anything. I like to think of myself as an observer. What I see is a country divided. I see citizens of our great nation making the American flag a joke. I see people discriminating against others just because they refuse to fly the flag on something they own. Being an American has a price and it’s there for anyone willing to pay.