Today is Flag Day. You probably didn’t know. You probably didn’t care.
Unless you’re Boy Scout or a member of the VFW, you probably don’t give the American flag much thought. And you likely don’t have any flags in your home.
I don’t either. Not really. What I do have hanging on the walls of my home office are several variations of Jasper Johns’s paintings of the American flag.
I have no idea what Johns thought about the works or what he intended by the paintings. In fact, I’ve actively avoided finding out so that his artistic intent doesn’t interfere with my own personal, peculiar interpretation. For me, seeing these American Flags helps me to better see the American Flag.
Normally when I look at an American flag I see . . . an American flag. Although not consciously recognized, there is a certain semiotic understanding that the flag (a cloth with stars and stripes) is merely the signifier (the form the symbol takes) while the signified (the concept it represents) is America. Of course this leads to another level of recursion since “America” is also a sign that stands in for a variety of signified concepts, both tangible (our homeland) and intangible (our ideals).
When I look at Johns’s Flags, though, I see something different: an abstract representation of an abstract symbol that itself represents abstract concepts. In looking at the paintings I no longer see “American Flag” but see past the symbol to what it represents, such as liberty and civic virtue. The paintings help me to better see the authenticity of the flag in a way that I often miss when I encounter it flying on a flagpole.
Without Johns’s painting to keep me focused, it would be easy for me to see the American Flag in a clichéd manner. Like how President Obama used to think of flag lapel pin.
That seems to have changed, for I noticed the other day that the president was wearing just such a pin. I had almost forgotten why he had stopped.
Almost a decade ago, when he was running for president, he said he’d no longer wear a U.S. flag pin, but would instead show his patriotism through ideas. He said he didn’t wear the flag pin anymore because it has become a substitute for “true patriotism” since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks:
Someone noticed I wasn’t wearing a flag lapel pin but I am less concerned with what you are wearing on your lapel than what’s in your heart . . . We have to lead on our values and our ideals.
He is absolutely right that the pins can be used as a substitute for a concept (patriotism) that has lost its meaning. But then I heard his explanation, and I realized there was something else going on:
“You know, the truth is that right after 9/11, I had a pin,” Obama said Wednesday. “Shortly after 9/11, particularly because as we’re talking about the Iraq war, that became a substitute for I think true patriotism, which is speaking out on issues that are of importance to our national security, I decided I won’t wear that pin on my chest.”
Obama wasn’t just saying the flag pins had become a cliché; he was saying the flag pins no longer served — at least for him — as authentic symbols. In other words, the reason Obama refused to wear the pin on his chest was not that he wasn’t patriotic, but rather because he was what I would call post-authentic.
Authenticity refers to the truthfulness of origins, attributions, commitments, sincerity, devotion, and intentions. For instance, a WWII veteran might wear a flag label pin because he has an authentic love of country. His intention in wearing the symbol is to convey a sincere non-ironic expression of patriotism.
Someone who is post-authentic would wear (or not wear) the pin for a quite different reason. Although it is not intended to be ironic, it does share some characteristics of “hipster irony.” Hipster irony is a self-awareness of one’s behavior that is incongruent with expectations of how the person (hipster) would authentically act. For the ironic hipster, wearing a flag pin would be communicating, “Isn’t it ironic that someone as cool as me would wear such a lame symbol?”
In contrast, the post-authentic person is also painfully self-aware of what they are communicating. Yet unlike the ironist they wear the symbol to be congruent with the intended meaning. They are uncomfortable, though, with the meanings of the signified concepts as commonly held. They do want the symbols to be authentic but only after the symbol has been recalibrated, returned to an original, pure, or redefined meaning of the concept signified.
For the post-authentic, the quest for authenticity also becomes a purpose unto itself. The prefix “post” (after) in post-authentic is the search for what a more authentic authenticity, a constant striving for a more genuine genuineness. The authentic is condition of truthfulness and sincerity. The post-authentic is a condition of truthfulness and sincerity — but with an asterisk. The WWII vet wears the flag pin as an authentic expression of “I’m a patriot. I love my country.” Obama chose to not wear the pin as a post-authentic expression of “I’m a patriot. I love my country, but . . . ”
Unfortunately, the asterisk isn’t completely without warrant since the co-opting of patriot by nativists, xenophobes, and domestic terrorists has caused some Americans to distance themselves from the label.
It is also true that the term patriot has to compete with other terms that we might rightfully believe take precedence. Christians, for example, not only owe allegiance to the state but also, and more importantly, to the Kingdom of God. Even when we consider ourselves loyal citizens of the U.S., we also embrace a form of universal cosmopolitanism in cleaving to the invisible, catholic church.
Whatever unique and individual allegiances we might have, though, we corporately share a divided loyalty between America as our birthplace (or adopted home) and America as an ideal, a set of principles embodied in such documents as the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. While our bifurcated loyalty can make patriotic sentiments complex and dissonant, it can also prevent a love of America from devolving into blind nationalism.
This tension sets America—and our identity as a nation—apart in a peculiar way. As historian Walter Berns notes,
The late Martin Diamond had this in mind when, in an American government textbook, he points out that the terms “Americanism,” “Americanization,” and “un-American” have no counterparts in any other country or language. This is not by chance, or a matter of phonetics—Swissism? Englishization?—or mere habit. (What would a Frenchman have to do or believe in order to justify being labeled un-French?) The fact is, and it was first noted by the Englishman, G.K. Chesterton, the term “Americanism” reflects a unique phenomenon; as Diamond puts it, “It expresses the conviction that American life is uniquely founded on a set of political principles.”
Most Americans have so internalized this concept of America as both a geographic place and an abstract ideal that we sometime forget how radical it must appear to the rest of the world.
Consider, for example, the tiny minority of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans who support reconquista, the “reconquering” and return of California, New Mexico, and other parts of the United States to Mexico. If their dream were realized it would simply make Mexico a much larger but still underdeveloped nation. You can move the border northward but without the culture, ideals, laws, and principles of America, San Diego is just another Tijuana. Presumably, though, the re-conquistadors would still want to take the land even though it would mean having to immigrate further eastward to find work.
The beauty and genius of our principles, though, is that there is nothing that makes them exclusively American. They are ideals (such as universal religious liberty) that are not only available to all people but also, as American political philosophers since Thomas Jefferson have contentiously argued, likely to eventually be adopted by the majority of nations on Earth. To be a patriot then is to align oneself with all generations of Americans — past, present, and future — who claim that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.
In his eulogy for the Kentucky politician Henry Clay , Abraham Lincoln gave expression to what should be an applicable description of all American patriots:
He loved his country partly because it was his own country, but mostly because it was a free country; and he burned with a zeal for its advancement, prosperity and glory, because he saw in such, the advancement, prosperity and glory, of human liberty, human right and human nature. He desired the prosperity of his countrymen partly because they were his countrymen, but chiefly to show to the world that freemen could be prosperous.
Berns says that for Clay (and Lincoln), “country and principle were one and the same.” Perhaps in Clay we can find a useful model for ourselves; a way to be an authentic patriot again without the need for the asterisk.