Everybody's Flag

We still must work surprisingly hard to obtain justice for all.

In the four months since September we've moved from our first waves of dread and rage to the slower task of facing what's been lost. In a thousand ways we've honored our dead with honorable behavior toward each other, but in some quarters we're still captive to fear. We hurt. Frustrated with the impossibility of making our world safe, some are drawn to easier targets, willing to have straw enemies set up in our midst to be shot down, to relieve the popular anger.

Religious and political intolerance still vibrate in the national aftershock. Friends still tell me of suffering anti-Muslim slurs in what was meant to be polite company. And I've had my own instructive glimpse of a nation's psychology: I've watched, amazed, as some ultra-conservative journalists ignited an attack on my patriotism with a stunning prevarication that blazed like a grassfire through the Internet and countless newspapers including the Wall Street Journal, and now, the Tucson Weekly ["What a Riot," December 27]. From deliberate beginnings, it roared through the fertile ground of careless journalism, where laziness can do the same work as malice. Not one editor called to verify before publishing an inflammatory misquote. The crowd wants drama, it seems.

For the record, I do not believe the American flag stands for "intimidation, censorship, violence, bigotry, homophobia, and shoving the Constitution through a paper shredder." I believe the opposite, and said so in an op-ed piece defending the flag from men who'd waved it to justify death threats against U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee and the murder of a Sikh man in Arizona. I asked if these monstrous men thought our flag stood for monstrous things (that's the source of the infamous quote, snipped from its context), and answered that I do not--for me it's an emblem of peace, generosity, courage and kindness. I warned that in hard times, some confuse a nationalistic intolerance for patriotism. And my intolerant detractors chose this warning, out of all I've written, to turn on its head and use to bash me as unpatriotic. Believe me, irony is not dead.

Like millions of Americans, I'm devoted to my country and also to spiritual convictions that don't allow me to celebrate violence as the best solution to any problem. I've joined a legion of writers in recent months--Susan Sontag, Wendell Berry, Katha Pollitt, Alice Walker, Molly Ivins, Arundhati Roy, Barry Lopez and many more--who address the complex struggle of reconciling national and moral imperatives. Extremists who tolerate no such dialogue have attacked us mightily in print, without quoting our actual words or ideas, but rather, declaring us un-American for fabricated reasons--in my case they invariably haul out that one misquote about the flag--and pronouncing direly that no one had better listen to us, they'd best play it safe and just hate us. A few have obliged, sending me a brand of vitriol previously unimaginable to me in more than a decade of receiving mail from strangers.

But I hear in much greater numbers from readers who've read me--not just read about me--and deeply appreciate words expressing the complexities that have tormented them since our horrible September. If anyone believes ambivalence about war needn't be given a voice because it's such a miniscule component of the American conversation, they should see this mountain of supportive mail. Thoughtful readers like these know enough to roll their eyes whenever anyone pulls out the flag to try to claim ownership of it and wield it as a blunt instrument. They've responded to the assaults on writers of conscience by purchasing our books in record numbers; they've risen above fundamentalist thinking by reading voraciously about Islam and our political history with the Muslim world. Clearly, many Americans understand patriotism as a higher calling than gossip-mongering.

If anyone else still thinks patriotism demands resolute obedience to the majority, let's go to Exhibit B. I have two American flags in my house. Both were gifts; one was handmade by a child, a few stars shy of regulation but nonetheless cherished. Each has its place where I can look up and remember: That's mine. It protects and represents me only because of Ida B. Wells, Susan B. Anthony--women who risked everything so I could be a full citizen. Each of us who is female, or non-white, or without land, would have been guaranteed in 1776 the same voting rights as a horse. We owe a precious debt to Americans before us who refused to believe patriotism just meant going with the crowd. Our history is one of courageous flag-wavers who risked threats and public ridicule for an unpopular cause--ours. Now that flag is mine to carry on, defending freedom and justice for all.

As we rebuild ourselves from the most terrible assault we've ever known, we raise our flags for what we love, declaring that heartlessness can't steal heart. No insult can touch the fact that I care enough about my country to work for what's best in us. We've declared ourselves solidly behind New York and every victim of September 11, vowing that an injury to one of us is an injury to all. If our hearts are in that pledge, we can take the next step and dedicate ourselves to a mindful protection of religious and political minorities in our midst. There are as many ways to love America as there are Americans. Our country needs us all.

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