Flag represents the good, the bad, the ugly

in Contributors/Terry Manning/Voices by

A couple weeks ago the editorial board of the New York Times published an online project titled, “Redesigning America’s Flag: Six New Takes on Old Glory.” 

Noting the flag’s design was updated somewhat regularly prior to the early 1900s, the paper asked graphic designers to submit redesigns. 

The board stated, “The flags they came up with reflect a mix of approaches. Some are functional designs, others artistic renderings; some represent America as it could be, others how the artist sees the country now.” 

I’ll be kind and say some of the designs were … aesthetically challenged. After showing the project to a group of students in a design class, I would summarize their sentiments with the phrase “doing too much.” 

The worst offenders were those whose designers got so focused on making statements they forgot the flag has to exist in the real world and meet real-world obligations. The best example was a digital “flag” whose colorful animations “suggest the country’s growth or decline within [the] parameters” of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, according to the artist. 

Never one to pass up a chance to be aggrieved, Fox News weighed in. 

Their headline, “New York Times publishes redesigns of the American flag, Twitter mockery ensues,” is bad enough, but then the subhead: “Some designs emphasized American decline, loss of values.” And some designs were optimistic about America, so why emphasize the negative slant? But that’s a subject for another column. 

My point is, the Fox News article was barely a story, just a short note that the Times published an editorial and comments from folks on Twitter who disdained it. And it included a link to a July Times story about the mixed feelings some people have when they see the American flag displayed in an in-your-face manner. 

Fox’s take? How dare anyone think the American flag represents anything less than American exceptionalism! Who ever could see it as “alienating,” as the story suggested? 

Well, more people than we should be comfortable with, both abroad and here at home. 

This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, especially Southerners who wail over the Confederate battle flag’s adoption by white supremacist groups. They insist the flag represents family sacrifice for the “lost cause” against Northern aggression, not the ugly racism it symbolizes to others. 

I sympathize with them (OK, not really), but maybe their forefathers should have said something when those good ol’ boys around the corner waved the battle flag while they were doing the dirtiest of their dirty deeds against minorities. Maybe they should have told the Ku Klux Klan to rip up a couple uniforms and make their own flag. 

But they didn’t, so the association was made and it has lasted. And the same thing is happening to America’s flag and lexicon. 

When someone calls himself a “patriot,” what does that even mean? Is the image in your mind that of a Revolutionary War soldier or a crackpot justifying bigoted behavior? When people start ranting about “freedoms,” do you think of someone fighting to affirm their rights or someone whining they can’t be a jerk like they could “in the good ol’ days” when America was “great?” 

Remember when the former president was photographed hugging and even kissing the flag before he spoke at a conservative gathering in 2019? He mimed slow-dancing with it while Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless The U.S.A.” played in the background. This is the kind of image some of us see in the flag. 

Yes, we see Iwo Jima and the moon landing and hear John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.” We hear the echoing words of the Pledge of Allegiance. We see it adorn the uniforms of brave men and women who defend us around the globe. 

But we also see the flag on a pole being used during the Boston busing protests to attack Black people. We see the American flag carried by insurrectionists spilling into the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. We see people waving it while they jeer and threaten their fellow Americans. We see people hiding behind it when they are called to answer for their lawless behaviors. 

We don’t need a new flag, we just need to honor the one we have. 

Some of us forget that while the flag represents us, we also represent the flag. Our actions enrich or taint what should be held as a respectable symbol, regardless of political party. 

Terry E. Manning lives and works in Savannah, Ga. He is a Clemson graduate and worked for 20 years as a journalist. He can be reached at teemanning@gmail.com.