A friend of mine recently posted a neat picture of her husband and their children. In the photograph, her husband — who is a firefighter — is sitting on the back of a firetruck while their older child is on top of the truck, looking down at his dad. The husband is also holding their youngest — a newborn at the time — while both father and child are draped in the American Flag. From a photography point of view, it’s very neat.
From an American point of view, I assume that the photograph is deeply patriotic, especially in light of the events of September 11, 2001, when so many firefighters lost their lives responding to the terrorist attacks on New York, the Pentagon and Flight 93 crashing in Pennsylvania. I write that I “assume” that the photograph is patriotic because I’ve never really felt a sense of patriotism to the degree that so many display.
A week ago, some young people in town decided to have a protest against racism and mistreatment of Black people by law enforcement. They were at a very busy corner in town, right off the interstate off ramp. They had banners and flags of all kinds, including the American Flag. Countering their protests were a group of people with flags with the name of the current President of the United States. They also had Confederate Flags and American Flags. To make things very confusing, the people protesting anti-racism (racists, I guess?) were chanting, “USA! USA! USA!”
You see, recent protests against racism and social injustice have weaponized the American Flag. On the one hand, people are kneeling during the National Anthem or the refusing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance because they feel — backed up by plenty of evidence — that the United States of America are not living up to the ideals that the Flag is supposed to symbolize. People who take offense at people who want social justice have used the Flag as an excuse, saying that the protesters are being disrespectful to a flag that means the world to them.
When I was in high school, my economics teacher explained to us that he had no problem with fellow athletes who protested during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. (He was on the 1972 US Olympic Basketball Team.) He said that, for him, the Constitution of the United States was more of a symbol of the country than the Flag. In a way, his views and his explanation of why formed my own opinion about flags in general.
You see, growing up on the border forced me many times to choose between my Mexican heritage and my American residence. When it came to soccer at the World Cup, I always supported the Mexican team, and I always will. That has caused friction with some people because they keep telling me, “You’re an American now. You need to support the American men.” As if who I cheer on in a sport somehow determines the level of my patriotism or duty to country.
They disregard that I signed up for selective service. They forget that I’ve been in public service for the great majority of my adult life. They shrug off that I’ve been to Puerto Rico on an outbreak response on behalf of the United States. (Puerto Rico is part of the United States, by the way.) Oh, no, my patriotism has been measured by what country I cheer for in the Olympics and in the World Cup.
Even with Mexico, though, I’ve never really draped myself in that flag, either. When I was a child going to school in Mexico, I had to recite the pledge to the Mexican Flag, and sign the Mexican National Anthem. (I still remember the words to both of them.) But it was such a mechanical way of just doing something — like a church ritual, to be honest — that it didn’t mean much to me. And it was the same when we moved to the United States.
I suppose that if a bunch of epidemiologists were killed in some sort of catastrophe like 9/11, I would be a little more patriotic? Or if I had been indoctrinated into worshiping a flag since I was a small child? I don’t know. I just don’t know, and I probably never will. My parents made sure that I grew up to be skeptical of such things, learning from history how easy it is to slide from patriotism to nationalism. I mean… If you’re counter-protesting people who want less racism with the American Flag, then you’re probably almost to the nationalist end of the spectrum, right?
My patriotism usually manifests itself in the work that I do. My wife and child live in the United States. I live in the United States. We work in the United States. Our friends and relatives are in the United States… So of course I am going to do things that benefit and not harm the United States. At the same time, I still have family in Mexico, and several of my relatives living in the United States are undocumented immigrants from Mexico… So of course I’m going to worry about and do something about immigration policies between the two countries as well as economic development in Mexico.
It is not a zero-sum game to love more than one nation, or identify as more than one category, nationality or identity. So when people drape themselves in one flag, and do and say things with that flag as if that symbol is the only thing that matters, it confuses me. It confuses me for people to associate Freedom and Liberty with the US Flag and then want to enslave and discriminate against people — usually people of color. And it confuses me even more when the US Constitution clearly gives us the right to freely express our dissatisfaction with the government, and our own President threatens anyone who would burn the Flag to express their dissatisfaction with jail time.
Such weird times, these.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
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