Less wallpaper patriotism, please
Every June 14th, Americans recognize Flag Day. The holiday is itself a perfectly innocuous event; it's a nice excuse to unfurl a fresh new Stars and Stripes in front of homes, workplaces, and public buildings. It also serves as a worthy day for the appropriate disposal of worn flags.
■ But it's all too easy for people to mistake the symbolism of the flag for patriotic substance. We would be much better off if people paid as much reverence to the Constitution as many do to the flag.
■ For example: When Americans recite the Pledge of Allegiance, we offer that allegiance "to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands". That seems like a fairly large mistake. We really ought to say "I pledge allegiance to the Constitution of the United States of America, and to the Republic therein guaranteed."
■ Perhaps that doesn't sound quite as poetic. But the flag is a symbol, while the Constitution is the glue that actually binds us together as a Union. It's not a thing which "stands" for another; the Constitution is actually the thing -- the object of our allegiance.
■ The Constitution is the object of the Presidential oath of office. It is the same for the Congressional oath of office, and for military officers as well. They do not pledge allegiance to a symbol, they pledge to defend the Constitution -- the law itself.
■ We would do well to focus our civic statements of loyalty, such as they are, on the Constitution rather than on a symbol. It is a fine symbol, with a long-revered history. But other countries have flags, too. Not all of them have written constitutions. Even fewer have constitutions that expressly derive their authority from the consent of the governed.
■ Symbols too often give rise to willful misrepresentation and unhealthy posturing. Some people even wrapped themselves in the flag while terrorizing the US Capitol and threatening the seat of the nation's law itself. Others modify symbols like the flag with the intention to divide. That is the central problem of symbolism -- symbols are easily co-opted and their meanings changed without the consent of people already using them.
■ We should have no patience for "wallpaper patriotism" among us -- those paper-thin displays that exist only for decoration, having nothing to do with the structure underneath. Displaying, celebrating, and honoring the flag are fine things to do. But we should focus our energies on doing the utmost to celebrate and respect the structure itself by pledging our allegiance to the Constitution.