As flags go - especially flags in Texas - this wasn't a particularly big one; it was one of the kind you see kids waving at parades. But the size really wasn't the point. I couldn't believe that someone would plant flags unasked on other people's lawns.
When I went to take the flag out of our lawn, I saw that all of our neighbors' lawns had been flagged as well. Then I saw that there was a note on the flagstaff. The note said that it was important to show unity on this day after the events of the last year, and was signed by a local realtor at JB Goodwin.
This, I found just plain creepy. First, I don't trust realtors, and my guess is that the real reason for flagging our lawns wasn't that he felt "showing unity" was important, but that he had a house to show on our street that day, and wanted the area to look particularly good. And using the "events of the past year" to encourage people to make their neighborhood look more saleable is, at the very least, a low-down and nasty move.
But the other reason I found the note creepy is that, these days, I really don't trust people who talk about showing our unity. Unity has been invoked a lot by politicians in the past year, almost always to encourage people to stand behind their arrogant and inhumane policies. Going to protest the war? You're destroying the unity our country needs to show in a time of crisis. Disagree with the War on Terror's infringement on our civil rights? We need to be united to stop the terrorist threat, and you're threatening that. Rather not say "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance? You're destroying the fabric of our nation, where everyone needs to believe in God or at least shut up about not believing. As I said last week, dissent is not encouraged, and it's often discouraged by people literally or figuratively waving American flags. As a result, the American flag is not a symbol I can really identify with. Whatever those verses on the Statue of Liberty may say, I've seen the flag of our nation used more often to justify the exclusion of unwanted people and ideas than to celebrate the inclusiveness that our national myth claims we're all about. So it's not a symbol that I feel I can really support, certainly not in the current climate - and I certainly don't feel that it represents me.
As soon as I saw it, I knew I had to take out the flag. (Though I did toy briefly with the idea of leaving it right next to my "Bush Is A Punk-Ass Chump" bumper sticker, sort of as an accent.) But I felt uncomfortable about removing it, annoyed that someone had put me in the position of acting against this symbol on the 4th of July. Left to my own devices, I could simply have not endorsed the flag-waving demonstrations of patriotism on the Fourth, but instead, I had to make a stand against it.
As I plucked it out of the ground, I wondered what my neighbors would think, whether the nice folks next door who had asked us to housesit would change their minds about us. What would people think if they drove down the street and saw a flag on every lawn except ours? Which of our neighbors would chalk up a black mark against us in their minds? It was a damn day off, and I didn't feel like dealing with that sort of question when all I wanted to do was sit on the couch and watch movies.
Thinking that, and then writing those thoughts down, I realized that something's happened to me. When I was younger, I made no bones about my political beliefs. I wrote articles in the high school paper, and my mom excused me from a day of school to go to Washington to march for choice. I wore my views in bold print on my t-shirts and talked to whoever I could about them. In college, I was a fixture at campus protests, ran student action groups and devoted myself to an activist life. After graduation, I committed to working as a VISTA volunteer, so that I could put my money where my mouth was. And now, here I am, worried about plucking a flag out of my lawn on the Fourth of July.
Yes, I did burn out after that VISTA job. I got really sick, my body rebelling against the stress of long hours, high stress, and a crazy boss. I ended up having to quit with less than a month left in my term, because I couldn't physically go to work anymore. (It took the doctors about eight months to finally figure out that it was endometriosis, which after a number of different therapies is thankfully under control, at least for now.) I took the lesson to heart: I'd overcommitted myself, had run myself ragged trying to fix the world. It was time to take a step back.
That's what I did, going to Germany to explore the family history that in so many ways shaped my identity and was a driving force behind my activism. When you grow up knowing that the Holocaust happened because most Germans simply stood there and let it, it's hard not to see that activism is vital.
Gradually, I got involved again, albeit less intensely than I had been. I went to protests, and, later, sometimes helped organize actions, but the level of commitment that I'd had before just wasn't there.
When I came back to the States, one of the first events I went to was a gubernatorial debate between the Republic governor of New Mexico (who, all politics aside, really does look like a rat) and his Democratic challenger. In a roomful of students, the governor said that if he had a dollar and the choice to spend it on schools or prisons, he would definitely spend it on prisons, because the money was better spent there. I expected catcalls, or at least a chorus of boos. Instead, nothing. A few weeks later, a relatively steep and sudden tuition increase was announced. A protest was called. Out of 40,000 students, all of whom were directly affected by the tuition hike, fourteen people came. I was disgusted. And I stopped going to protests.
I'm not sure when exactly I lost the attitude that made me wear my political views out there for everyone to see. I know these events had something to do with it, as did some others. Becoming a college instructor might be part of it, although you can't keep politics out of the classroom anyway, especially not when you teach Native American literature. And sure, growing older may well be a mellowing process.
It's not that I want to go back to the days where my life consisted in large part of organizing protests, teach-ins and speak-outs. Nor do I think I need to go back to those bold print t-shirts. But still, it's a sad day when I worry about what people might think if I take someone else's flag out of my own lawn. That means that somewhere down the line I lost something, something important, and the one good thing that flag did was made me realize that I want it back.
I Have Known,
last updated 10. July 2002
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