Stars, stripes & doubts

Ever since Sept. 11, I’ve been bothered by the flag. A lot.

I consider myself as much an American as anyone else who can claim to be a citizen, which means I ought to feel proud every time I see the Stars and Stripes. During a national crisis such as the one we’re currently experiencing, I figure that feeling of patriotism ought to be burning a hole in my chest.

It’s not.

This is one nation, but sometimes I can’t help but wonder if more than a handful of us will ever be able to agree on what it means to be an American, or what an American is even supposed to be. And if we Americans can’t even agree on what we are or who we are supposed to be, then just how united are these states?

It seems you can’t go in a store without seeing a flag emblazoned on just about everything: Cups. Chairs. Dog collars. Whatever. There was even an article in last Sunday’s New York Times which mentioned that there is now a gun for sale called the United We Stand; the flag is laser-etched onto its side. It’s selling well now, but gun sales in general have gone through the roof. Gun manufacturers, being the patriotic, caring types we all know them to be, are cranking up their advertising. It’s hard to figure, but some folks actually believe they are safer from the threat of terrorists if they own a handgun, especially one with a flag on the side. It’s amazing what fear will do to common sense and logic.

At a gas station near where I live — which happens to be owned by Arabs — there are a ton of winter caps for sale with “God Bless America” sewn in large letters across the front. I don’t know what happened to the caps that used to say “Detroit” or that promoted various sports teams. They are nowhere to be seen.

By now everyone has seen the multitude of flags waving from the sides of cars and trucks. Big flags. Little flags. Paper flags. Homemade flags.

“Proud to be an American.”

I see that a lot too.

But what kind of an American are all these flag-wavers so proud of being? If all the folks who have a flag displayed in their car, or outside their home, were to attend a special party for patriotic flag-wavers, would they get along? Or would they be uncomfortably surprised at the different sorts of people who showed up? What would the conversation be like? What would the reception be like for the Arab-American flag-wavers? Would the long-simmering tensions between Arab-Americans and African-Americans in Detroit melt away into a group hug?

Here’s what got me to thinking about all this: it wasn’t that long after the Sept. 11 attack that the Arab-American community found itself under attack by other Americans. Some of those “other” Americans who suddenly felt entitled to single out Arab-Americans for special treatment obviously felt that they were more American than the Arabs. The Arabs don’t belong, but we do because we are the real Americans.

Does this sound familiar? Isn’t this the same reception that was given to just about every group of immigrants that passed through Ellis Island? And how about the way the Japanese-Americans were treated during World War II when they were placed in concentration camps inside their own country simply because they looked too much like the enemy? Or what about the treatment of the original inhabitants of this country who were here before there was even such a thing as an American? And aren’t white supremacists the ones always yelling for blacks to go back to Africa, as if we don’t have any stake here despite all of our contributions?

Will the real Americans please stand up? Thank you. Now will all those who are seated kindly turn in your flags on your way out the door?

Sure, I know this sounds ridiculous. These are pretty ridiculous times we’re living in. Rather than pulling us all together to form the sort of America that I always thought this place was supposed to be, Sept. 11 has succeeded in exposing the numerous islands adrift inside America’s borders, islands that continue to be at odds with one another. The Arabs may be the underdogs for now, but that hardly means that all of our previously existing prejudices have been washed away by this sudden surge of feel-good commercialized patriotism.

A colleague of mine wrote a very well-received column within days after the attack that described America as a family. We may have our differences, he said, but in times like this those differences fade away and we all rally round the flag. At the time, angry as I was about the attack, I confess the column made me feel good. The level of outrage was dead-on, and it said what I wanted to believe. But then the cracks started showing all over again, and I had to start rubbing the sleep from my eyes.

America is not a family. Just because a group of people lives under the same roof doesn’t make them kin. A family doesn’t attempt to purify itself by sending the less-understood members of that family into exile until it’s safe to claim them once again. Families don’t get to choose. A family just is.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to wave the flag, and there’s nothing wrong with patriotism. But if you’re going to be a true patriot then you need to understand that America means all Americans, not just your buddies and those who think like you do. All Americans. It means you’re willing to defend the rights of all Americans. It means you understand that just because you can trace your family’s roots in this country back to the Mayflower or to the first slave ship or however far back you want to go doesn’t make you any more of an American than the family that was just granted their citizenship yesterday.

America is all of us.

Happy holidays.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-area writer and musician. E-mail [email protected]