The American Reporter
St. Simons Island, Ga.
May 23, 2006
SYMBOLS WE COME HOME TO
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- Two things happened this week that really got me thinking how little we know about the American flag. First, an email came to a mailing list I'm on asking members and fellow editors for their advice. A reader wrote to one newspaper with a Letter to the Editor saying he was boycotting a restaurant because they flew their ethnic flag out front.
It was a small town with only two ethnic restaurants. The general consensus was not to print it and therefore avoid being sued for lost business. The editor agreed and called the writer, suggesting a more general statement rather than targeting a given business. She wrote again and it arrived in time for publication.
The second thing that brought the subject into focus came during a lazy Sunday afternoon spent watching Neil Simon's "Plaza Suite." In the final scene of this 1971 movie, the cast and passersby are on the front steps of the grand old hotel. Over their heads and waving in the breeze is an Israeli flag in all its blue-and-white splendor. There were a couple of other nondescript flags flying and our own Old Glory was correctly positioned in the line-up.
I asked John if he thought that was done because the writer, the cast, and just about everyone connected with the movie were Jewish. His answer was quick and knowledgeable -- with the knowledge that only comes from experience. "They probably had an Israeli dignitary staying there."
John started laughing as he thought back to 1955, when we both worked for United States Steel at 71 Broadway on the corner of Wall Street. A visiting head of state, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, was coming to our headquarters during one of his rare overseas trips, hp[omg to develop an aid-based relationship with the United States.
"John, run out and get an Ethiopian flag," said the boss.
"No problem," John said.
Well, it was a problem. There were no Ethiopian flags in any of the usual shops specializing in flags from other nations. But, undaunted, John worked his way uptown. After all, we knew you can buy anything in New York City. And so he did, as one recommendation after another suggested Morris' Pawn Shop in the Theatre District, and that paid off. I still wonder how much one could pawn an Ethiopian flag for!
I discovered not only is there no rule against flying foreign flags, but as a business community, as a nation and in many other ways, in appropriate circumstances, we promote it. And that was good news to me; each March 17th I fly the Irish flag as I , proudly flaunt my heritage. At the same time, I do not profess allegiance to any country but the United States of America.
I'd suggest that restaurants fly their ethnic flags as identifiers. After all, I'm more likely to go for Italian food in a restaurant with Italian ties and the strong scent of garlic.
Recalling Miami when the Cuban community was protesting the State Department's decision to send little Elian Gonzalez back to his father in Cuba, we saw people flying the American flag upside down; more recently, I saw the same thing during the protests over draconian immigration laws that filled the streets of many cities.
Personally, I become physically ill when I see the American flag so dishonored. Any assemblage has a right to speak, and if they want to they can express either verbal venom or hateful comments printed on signs. But, since flying the flag upside down is an international sign of distress, their actions are defusing the power of that symbol.
I learned how to treat a flag before I went to school. "Don't let the flag touch the ground" was something we heard early and often. That is the first rule and sets the scene for all others - respect. Once in school, we were taught to honor the flag with such reverence it might have been a lesson from our Catechism instead of our civics book. But as I write in this moment, I think I'd better check myself.
In reverence for the flag, the rule book has more "do nots" than "do's, and it's wise to remember not all of us are being disrespectful when we inadvertently break a rule.
For instance, our President, surely a red, white and blue American, is pictured signing an autograph on a flag some child in the crowd hands to him. (No, No, Mr. President. We do not deface the flag with images, writing, etc., etc. We do not wear the flag made into a shirt. We do not have flag napkins or curtains.)
During the Cold War, I was a "Good Will Ambassador" and took a team to the Soviet Union for friendly games of soccer. When we were leaving, our wonderful translator and guide, Alexander Titov, gave me a string of amber beads, saying he wanted me to have something Russian. I had nothing to give him but my small lapel pin of an American flag with rhinestone stars and stripes. I gave it to him saying: "This is all I have that's American, Alex, and even this was made in Japan." He laughed and said, "That's wonderful, and don't worry - the beads were made in Latvia."
He knew so much about us, including our language that he learned in school, and I really don't know Latvia from Scandinavia. What comes out of conversations with other Americans is that although most of us are not uncaring, we just don't care to know how the rest of the world lives. We like to go back and visit The Old Country for the sake of our forebears, but beyond that, it's rare to find someone who is really into the culture of another country unless there is work or some other connection.
If any place on the globe needs us, we are there with all we can offer. When the need is met, we pick up our tools and come home. And, why not? America's a great place to come home to.
And everyone is welcome to make this their home as well. Tell them to come knocking. But first, tell them they have to wipe the border dust off their feet and walk in through the front door.