The American flag is the greatest and most enduring symbol of the United States of America. It represents both America and Americans, home and abroad.
It connects America's past with its present. It is the one entity that binds all Americans together; they are united by their flag but are otherwise
a melting pot of disparate identities, histories and concerns.
The flag has been a constant that has flown over a revolutionary war, a civil war, imperial wars and wars of freedom for others. It adorns commercial
products, cars and corporate logos. And it flies above arguably the most patriotic nation in the world. The Stars and Stripes is perhaps the most
recognized symbol on this planet. To some it represents oppression, to others it is, in Lincoln's words, "the last, best hope of earth."
Over a four-month period, I traveled more than 30,000 kilometers and visited 32 states of America to try to discover what exactly the Stars and
Stripes means to Americans.
"Freedom" is the instinctive response given by most Americans when considering what the flag means to them. When pushed to elaborate, some list the
civil rights they associate with this ideal, while others rephrase "supposed to represent." A white veteran with a brain tumor who receives no state
aid and lives in a tent in Florida felt he had the "freedom to go hungry," while his young son felt he had "freedom to ride my bike." Others, who
have fallen afoul of the law, like one young mechanic in Arkansas, had nothing positive to say: "This place sucks. You're not free here. They do you
with laws, not force."
There is a genuine fear of being ostracized and branded "un-American" -- the ultimate sin. Many people choose not to exercise their freedom of
speech for this reason because it is viewed as dangerous and not without consequences. A Texan lady, when speaking about politics, resignedly said:
"Here, you can't say a whole lot. You can, it's just that you'd be so outnumbered. You'd lose a few friends."
The Stars and Stripes is the American battle flag. It represents the military, and those that have fought and died for the flag. "When I see our flag
I think about our military and bombs bursting in the air. When I see another country's flag I think more of their culture," a musician in Florida
explained. Both America and the identity of its citizens have been shaped by war throughout the course of the 20th century. The association of the
flag with the military is inevitable.
There is an inherent paradox in the commercial exploitation of the flag. The majority of Americans, whom I spoke to, seemed to take offense at the
willful disregard of their most sacred symbol, and yet most are happy to see it exploited for commercial gain. Some view this commercialization as
disrespectful, but the majority laugh or simply shrug it off as the American way. If you can turn a buck off it, it can't be wrong. As one New Yorker
joked: "When we're attacked, we print T-shirts. Capitalism and the gun are what made this country. Our whole economy is based on war and
Americans do not associate their flag with the U.S. government. The government is seen as transient, the flag as transcendent. The flag represents the
people and their country, not the politicians who represent them; citizens pledge their allegiance to the flag, not to their president. "The flag
directly represents us today," said one man in Alabama.
what do you think when you see the flag??