Today is Flag Day, the date our flag was adopted by the Continental Congress in 1777, to be followed by President Wilson's proclamation of Flag Day in 1916, and then an Act of Congress in 1949.
Now, in case you're just hearing about it, that's understandable since it is one of the more obscure of our holidays, coming as it does not long before the Fourth of July, which is better known for its displays of the old "Red, White, and Blue."
Anyway, through the years the subject of flags and other symbols of patriotism is one I've thought about often, starting in my own elementary school days during the early 1960s, when saluting the flag did seem to have more "meaning" before our national pride took some major hits after such tragedies as the assassination of President Kennedy, and the Vietnam War.
In the following years, as I made my way through school, it often occurred to me that the daily salute to the flag was one of our stranger rituals, because - when you think about it - why do we have to do it daily? Is it because the pledge "wears off" after 24 hours, necessitating a "renewal"? And, for that matter, what does "respect" for a flag actually mean?
Recently, the flag salute factored into a question of my own "respect" after an incident while I was substitute teaching earlier this year. From time to time I've been known to take a corner of the flag in the tips of my fingers and then wave it while the students are saluting, just for fun and to break up the monotony a bit. Students always seem to have enjoyed my gesture.
That day, though, I did perhaps go a little too far when I took the wooden pole out of its stand, and waved the flag at a student in the front row. When the salute was over, a rather serious young lady, who may have had some military history in her background, took me to task for what she saw as my obvious lack of respect.
I thought about her comment for the rest of the period, and just before the bell, I did explain that if anyone thought that my having some fun with the flag was being disrespectful, I didn't mean it to be.
Although my little speech felt "right," the incident did dredge up questions I've had about the salute and what it actually means, and a problem I've noticed with symbols in general such as flags, and even words on a piece of paper, eloquent though they be, which is the tendency to substitute the symbol for the substance it stands for.
While the American flag does symbolize "the republic for which it stands," we should always remember that it also symbolizes the principles for which we stand, but, far too often, that connection is lost.
For instance, in times of war (which seems to be all the time, lately), "patriotic" Americans who are outraged by even the mere thought of an American flag being burned, don't bat an eye when informed that the latest American bombing has incinerated dozens of innocent civilians in another country, because, it seems, respecting the flag is more important than respecting the rights of people.
But, as the late Howard Zinn, the author of "A Peoples' History of the United States" would remind us, "There is no flag so large that it can hide the shame of killing innocent people." Perhaps these human rights violations happen so often because, as Samuel Johnson would also remind us, "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." And, I might add, often the first.
The American flag should stand not just for our patriotism, but also for our principles, and specifically those principles found in our Constitution. After all, when a President takes the oath of office, he pledges to protect not our flag, but our Constitution, but sadly, that protection has been violated repeatedly, and never more so than since the War on Terror began.
Presidents from both major parties have ignored the Constitution through acts such as torture, and the drone targeting of American citizens abroad, and by our tacit approval of such violations, it's obvious that far too many Americans simply don't know (or don't care) what's in our Constitution.
Because of that, I have proposed that besides a pledge to the flag, we could also have what I call "A Pledge to the Constitution," which goes like this:
"I pledge allegiance to the Constitution of the United States of America, and to the principles for which it stands, one nation, under law, indivisible, striving for liberty and justice for all people throughout the world." Of course, before taking such a pledge, Americans would also have to actually read what's in the Constitution. Although we could certainly keep the original pledge (which, remember, has only been around since the 1890's), a periodic "Pledge to the Constitution" might go a long way towards the day when our country stands not just for the "law of force," but for the "force of law," and bring some true "meaning" to such holidays as the Fourth, and the one we mark today.
Phill Courtney has taught high school English, and he was a Riverside County Green Party candidate for Congress in 1998 and 2002. He can be reached at: email@example.com.