Posted: 7/8/11

“America is proud of all of you.”
-Barack Obama, addressing troops, July 4th, 2011.

“I feel like letting my freak flag fly.”
-David Crosby, Almost Cut My Hair, 1970.

This past Monday, tourists and Philly residents descended upon Ye Old City in a flag-waving American spectacle to celebrate this nation’s 235th year of Independence. The dizzying line-up of patriotic events and historical re-enactments caused cultural spheres, political interests, traffic and tempers to collide. Wawa's sponsored barrage of pyrotechnics and free(dom) hoagies, ad nauseaum, forced me, for a second year in a row, to consider patriotism and flag-inspired acts/accidents only possible here and then, on July 4th.

Wawa’s Celebrate America parade provides a backdrop, a carousel of images through which one can examine this current nation, its time and place. Parade-goers sported Old Navy flag tees and assorted RWB novelty hats, they clapped as urban youth marched in raucous drum lines punctuated by Chinese-Americans waving flags between traditional Chinese dragon heads; meanwhile, sober Pro-Lifers toted aborted fetus sandwich boards, and seasoned radicals channeled nostalgic conviction into their tattered leaflets. At points, the Celebrate America parade seemed this once annual, all-inclusive moment of complete patriotism, featuring flag waving as seemingly vague and undetermined as the events’ title.

To be clear: it is not my intention to figuratively or literally rain on Philly’s (Wawa’s) parade, here. Yes, congress is divided, Planned Parenthood defunded, jobs yet recovered, and national debt skyrocketed, but don’t want to go on any longer about this country’s conditions—it is a holiday. It is important to note that, despite these factors, despite a steady diet of NPR skepticism, I feel my own real impulse to parade. A willingness to celebrate America--to sport colors, to fly a flag, to hum Yankee Doodle. Other days of the year, this impulse feels unfashionable, futile, Conservative, or uncomfortably nationalistic. Today, though, it is worth investigation: what is this flag we mythologize, and what can it mean to fly it?

Celebrate America addresses our nation of immigrants by featuring various cultural bands and dancers in traditional dress and fanfare. They seem spokespeople for their native culture, characters straight from Epcot Center. Filipinos, Native Americans, Peruvians, Koreans, Puerto Ricans, and even, strangely, a tribe of Central Michigan home schoolers represented their individual constituencies this year. Normally, identified through their difference, in Celebrate America, they united under collective stars and stripes, waving their flags with an enthusiasm that rivals the Phillies fanbase.

After crew cuts in cargo pants walked for each branch of the military, receiving near boy-band reception—Vietnam veterans in vests revving motorcycles underwent transformation. On the road, they seem intimidating gangs of noise/traffic menace, yet when viewed through parade spectacles, they become heart-breaking objects of my reverence-almost-affection. In formation, with those bike flags, I felt momentary empathy to their strange brotherhood, totally foreign to my sphere of artist peers and academia. What is it, about the waving flag on the back of the Harley—chrome and stripes and patriotic man tears—that seems so poignant?

Misses and Miss Teen’s wear crowns, presuming royalty in a country where their ancestors sought to escape it; parade-goers (including me) are receptive to these measures of celebrity, costumed and poised. While, costumed and muscular—the Philadelphia Freedom Band plays the gayest tunes of them all, their electric energy embraced on blocks outside those rainbow street markers. They toted flags, too, expertly, fashionably wielding instruments with general fervor and adrenaline fueled by their spectators. I like to imagine those pre-parade line-up moments—the bikers and their babes, the Freedom brass in their sequined shorts, exchanging pleasantries and flag waving strategies. Two worlds converged under Wawa-sponsored circumstance.

Each group of interest, each community faction, each 18-person, waving, honking, striped tandem bicycle was book-ended by these incredible flag tarps. They were cumbersome spreads moved by a dozen or more volunteers proceeding in a heat-induced exhaustion, with seeming indifference to any cause other than parade aesthetics. They just carried a flag to carry a flag. Like commas holding together one long, Liberty run-on sentence.

This experience, my second annual encounter of the Philadelphia Independence Day parade, transported me back to a kind of patriotism present in my post-9/11 high school where, at least in Central Indiana, Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA blasted over the intercom between classes. This practice was sustained by some convicted administrator over a time period that must have lingered until Bush’s second term. Enduring that top 20 country hit, a tune recycled from Desert Storm and newly illustrated by Twin Tower montages, felt far more indoctrinating than years of daily allegiance pledges to the flag. Yet there is something about Greenwood’s hokey willfulness that sparks a sympathy, perhaps learned—a strange impulse to emote at his initial croon.

Then—post-parade, I delved into further flag-waving research to reveal other, less celebratory, but equally spectacular acts of freedom committed this holiday. I found one image of volunteer members of the American Border control installed a Secure the Border banner featuring 10,000 American flags installed along the US/Mexico border. Another image, later, in an e-mail forwarded from my 89-year old grandfather entitled (do not delete) Unbelievable What is Taking Place: acts of flag desecration captured in sensational, pixellated photographs. The acts, committed by immigration reform advocates who feel free to spit/tear/paint the flag, were captioned by outraged patriots with no mass e-mail etiquette.

When seen together, the photos describe the ultimate and amazing flexibility of our stars and stripes: flag as a border, as a fence, as a curtain or shield. The flag as a barrier to protect us against another, to seal off and shut out. In the other image--the flag operates like a canvas, on the ground: humble, porous, receptive to our individual needs. It is malleable and resilient, a space to occupy and take up cause. While here, in Philly, under Wawa’s assertion to Celebrate America, we marched, paraded, and flew the flag each to his own particular sentiment. Some flags with no agenda—just catching the breeze, the spectacle, the hoagie.

I swallow the impulse to crescendo this essay into that Lee Greenwood standard. I will not proudly stand-up…But I am willing to take pause on the Fourth.  Take pause for our beloved, cracked Philadelphia bell.  While one might believe the Liberty Bell rang out at the birth of our nation, in truth--it rested in silence.  Not surprising—history is mostly story. But significant in that the Liberty our bell inspires is merely our collective projection—and yet, we photograph at its site, all the same. It is our presence at the bell that gives the shrine its meaning. It is important because we think it's important. It's the National Park Service's version of existentialism. (hnn.us)


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