What Kind of Person Flies the Flag on Their Front Porch?
No, it's not a political act.
This is the first year I've owned a big American flag, and it came to my house almost by accident. A military-oriented magazine I wrote for last summer asked for a family photo, and the editor was very specific about the setting: front porch, flag fluttering in breeze. Sunset would be a plus.
I understood and intended to comply. But when the photographer arrived, I still hadn't had time to buy a flag. As we said goodbye to him after the initial shoot, he asked to come back the following week for more pictures, so we could get the shot with the colors. I ventured out to Home Depot, and, by the time he returned, the flag waved from one of the columns in front of our house—just the way it looks in postcards.
I have no problem with the Stars and Stripes, in the abstract or the specific. A tiny flag dangles from my charm bracelet. My son's framed drawing of Old Glory hangs prominently on our walls. I love visiting the tattered remnant at the National Museum of American History that inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Star Spangled Banner."
But flying a flag outside our front door? It never seemed necessary. My husband is a career Naval officer, and at the time of the photo shoot, we were heading into a yearlong deployment. Flags are supposed to symbolize patriotism and loyalty to country, but as a military spouse, I live those ideals inside and don't feel compelled to display them on the outside.
Like many people I know, I had come to believe that installing Old Glory on one's porch was sometimes more a display of partisanship than a display of feeling—something akin to placing a candidate's sign in the yard. In the years since I had awakened into political consciousness (think Reagan Revolution), right-wing activists have sought to make flying the flag, wearing it, or even talking about it affectionately synonymous with fidelity to their cause. This reached its peak three years ago when then-candidate Obama was accused of disloyalty to the country for not wearing an American flag lapel pin. He explained in 2007 that he had stopped wearing it because it had become a substitute for "true patriotism" since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, noting later that,"I'm less concerned about what you're wearing on your lapel than what's in your heart." This struck me as a sensible position.
Nonetheless, flag bullying continues. "I fervently believe the glorious Star-Spangled Banner should wave over our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guard heros [sic]. President Obama wants to raise the rainbow flag of the homosexual rights movement over them," read a recent fundraising letter from the conservative Family Research Council. I don't want to be associated with people who fly the flag, metaphorically or otherwise, to telegraph their cause; the Stars and Stripes has become so freighted with assumptions that it seemed almost safer to me to avoid dealing with it altogether. There was nothing I felt I needed to prove, to friends, neighbors, or anyone else.
But I put it up. The flag was big and unwieldy, so I was a little self-conscious as I tried to screw it into the base. Despite this, it felt familiar, almost as if I'd been doing it my whole life and was merely trying to recall the best method.
Alison Buckholtz is the author of Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War (Tarcher/Penguin 2009), which will be released in paperback this spring with a new afterword and reader's guide.
Illustration by Nina Frenkel. Photograph of the author and her children by Matt Mendelsohn Photography.