Confederate battle flags unfurled at state capitals. Ten Commandments monuments in courthouses. Swastika tattoos on the forearms of skinheads.
It’s pretty easy to dislike and descry totems like these, isn’t it?
The first is a sad remnant of not just a lost war but a morally bankrupt way of life, one based on the false presumption of the inherent inequality of different iterations of our single species. The second enforces the desire to impose the majority mythology on the personal, social, and political lives of everyone, believer or not. And the last is nothing else than a declaration of ignorance, hatred, and violence.
This week, with Canada Day on the Tuesday and U. S. Independence Day on Saturday, one question begs to be asked: How about adding the Maple Leaf and the Star Spangled Banner? Do they belong on the same list of evil influences as the others?
Most people will say no, and many will find the very question offensive, if not nonsensical.
I’m pretty thoroughly negative about the second flag, and I’m becoming more and more uneasy about the first.
I grew up in California, where I learned not only to respect the flag but actually to pledge allegiance to it, to offer a strange and very American kind of real fealty to a symbolic piece of cloth. When I was almost 8 years old, Christian legislators in Congress added the words “under God” to the pledge, which until then had declared loyalty to “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Forget that the Constitution forbade the “establishment of religion” — “under God” could mean anybody’s God, so what was being established? Of course, the answer was and is that what those two words proclaim is the existence of supernatural power (wink if you know which one we mean) at the heart of public life.
Ten years earlier, the Star Spangled Banner had been a beacon of hope for democracy and freedom in a world threatened by fascism. And a little more than ten years later, as the “conflict” in Vietnam escalated and re-escalated, some of those for whom the American flag had been a sign of hope began to see it instead as a standard of empire, an emblem of coarse and brutal power.
And now, another fifty years on, how many people inside the United States see the flag and swell with thoughtless pride? And how many non-Americans see the flag as a standard of blood, of imperial domination and brute force diplomacy?
These are harsh words, I know, and I can’t imagine many Americans reading this with any sympathy. So let’s move on, to that other flag, the Canadian Maple Leaf.
It’s 1971. I’ve been in Canada for just two years, and for all of its familiarity it still feels like what it is, another country.
I’m learning the rules of Canadian football and memorizing the names of obscure prime ministers and sainted hockey heroes. I’ve wrangled a teaching certificate by juggling a full-time job with a full-time university program, doing the first at night, the second during the day, and sleeping a bit in the middle. Now I’m about to start what would turn out to be my 35-year career in the secondary school classroom, but first I have to navigate a semester of substitute teaching. One of my first assignments is in a small elementary school.
This school is very traditional, and each day begins with a short assembly in the gym, where all of the classes gather to hear the important announcements for that day and receive any special instructions for field trips, special visitors, and such. The assembly ends with the singing of the national anthem, “O Canada,” performed under a large red and while Maple Leaf, the then relatively-new national flag (introduced in 1965, coincidentally 50 years ago this year).
It’s hard to express how much I, a new immigrant, not eligible for citizenship for another three years, was going to be affected by that moment.
I had left my native country over an unjustifiable war of empire and had chosen to live in a country that shared a language and much of a culture — but not the hubris of exceptionalism or the brashness of size and power. Canada was like the United States, but it was different, really different, in ways that were sometime obvious (like welcoming tens of thousands of young Americans who refused to kill Asian peasants for the greater glory of the superpower that gave them birth) and sometimes subtler (like Canadians’ legendary politeness, which is not a myth but rather one of the best things about daily life here).
So I stood there, with “my” class for the day, and the music teacher hit a note on the old upright piano at the front of the assembled students. And they started to sing. And as their small voices joined into one big sound, to my embarrassment I started to cry. Right there in front of everybody. Tears ran down my cheeks, and I felt a swell of happy good fortune that, somehow, I had found my way here, where little children sang out their fealty to a country that wasn’t trying to conquer anyone, to run an empire, to dominate the world.
It’s a moment that I’ve never forgotten and a surge of feeling that I can almost conjure to this day.
But it’s getting harder to recreate that mood, as Canada’s prime minister and his Conservative government hurry to complete their transformation of the country before their richly-deserved defeat in this October’s federal election.
Stephen Harper promised years ago that “You won’t recognize Canada when I get through with it.” And boy, has he ever been trying to keep his promise!
The Canadian Forces, peacekeepers around the world, are now the Canadian Armed Forces, enthusiastic partners with the United States in America’s wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Canada’s early leadership on emissions reduction and environmental responsibility has disappeared, along with the independence of the National Research Council, whose mandate is now to aid industry, not provide objective science.
I could go on and on, but I’ve already done that, in earlier posts like “Do No Science, Hear No Science, Speak No Science,” “Canada’s PM: A Warrior Wannabe” and “Control the conversation, control the country.”
American backpackers once famously stuck Maple Leaf pins to their gear, knowing that they would be more welcome overseas as peaceful, tolerant Canadians than as “ugly Americans.”
Now? Canadian mining companies, supported by government incentives and tax breaks, have been singled out for civil rights abuses by Amnesty International. And Canadian tourists in Guatemala were warned again by activists this week to remove any identifying symbols from their clothing and luggage, thanks to the unpopularity of Canadian mining companies’ ravaging of the landscape in their pursuit of the almighty dollar.
It’s sad when the Star Spangled Banner changes from a WWII symbol of freedom to an imperial battle flag. And it’s sadder when the Maple Leaf has to be hidden from the very people to whom it used to signify decency, tolerance, and equality.
So this week, no proud and patriotic flags for me.
Neither one of them.