I remember a time before the Vietnam War when the American flag evoked only positive feelings in me. When JFK was president, when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, I was still pledging allegiance to the red, white, and blue every morning at school.
I remember believing that the U.S. was the greatest country on Earth, with freedom, liberty, and justice for all. And that we truly were a people united.
That was a long time ago.
Now, when I see the flag, those feelings are hard to access. I think about the disproportionate incarceration of Black people. The mistreatment of immigrants. Torture. The neglect of America’s indigenous peoples.
It’s July Fourth. Lots of people — white and Black, Democrat and Republican, Northern and Southern — are celebrating independence. They toss candy from parade floats to smiling kids. Small-town businesses are decorated in red, white, and blue.
But you don’t see as many people waving the flag. I’ve been at many rallies over the last few years — Black Lives Matter, immigrants’ rights, Bernie rallies, and Trump rallies — but I’ve seen flags waved only at the last.
What are the Fourth of July revelers feeling as they wave flags? Are they proud of their country? Or are their emotions more complicated? Are some even ashamed of their country?
The Sunday New York Times had an article about the flag no longer being a symbol of unity. It starts with the story of Peter Treiber Jr.’s potato truck. He adorned one side of his truck with a flag to advertise his family farm, hoping it would endear him to customers. But some people were turned off by the flag and refused to do business with him. The funny thing is that Peter’s a liberal.
I’ve worked in advertising for over 35 years, so I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the importance of brands and logos. I see that America’s brand and logo have lost much of their original meaning.
At one time, when great brands — Apple, Nike, Volkswagen, and, yes, the U.S.A. — were doing it right, a glimpse of their logos told customers what they stood for. Apple was a rebel that democratized technology. Nike let us all become the athletes we were meant to be. VW was the car for “everyman,” and later for families cool enough to raise their kids with a sense of playfulness. America was the land of the free and the home of the brave.
These brands were empowered by messaging. There was the 1984 Super Bowl ad for Apple, the introductory “There Is No Finish Line” ad for Nike, and VW’s famous “Lemon” ad. And there was the “Star-Spangled Banner” and the Pledge of Allegiance.
But how the entities behind the brands behave matters. The recent behavior of Apple, Nike, and VW have changed how we feel about those brands.
We now know that Apple has used Foxconn to produce some of its products. That they avoid paying their fair share of taxes. We know that Nike has refused to pay women athletes who become pregnant, and that, overseas, they barely pay a living wage to workers. We know that VW lied and cheated when it came to emissions control and compliance.
How the government behaves, and how it treats its citizens and immigrants, all matter more than any pledge or patriotic song when it comes to determining how we feel when we see the flag.
I’ve been asking people what they think when they see the flag these days. Many answers have not been positive. One friend said he used to think the flag was his flag. Then it was stolen from him. Others, like those who misjudged Peter Treiber Jr., say they are suspicious of people who fly the flag.
So, did you raise the flag on this Fourth of July? Or wear red, white, and blue? What do you see in that rectangle of cloth atop a flagpole or nailed to the side of a garage?
Edward Boches lives in Brookline and Brewster and regularly contributes photography to the Independent.