The first flags were battle standards used during conflict. In times like those, especially when battles were bloody and fought face to face and you were usually slaughtering your neighbors who looked just like you, it was rather important to indicate whose side you were on.
Think about that for a minute. We have to be able to tell each other apart in order to kill the right people. Because if we were all running around naked and flagless, we would all essentially be the same. In which case, what the hell are we fighting for?
Good freakin’ question. What are we fighting for? I think the last war that was waged even tangentially for moral purposes (rather than purely for greed or racism or religious zealotry or the quest for the control of oil) was World War II. So, yeah, we need those flags, man, or we can’t separate ourselves. Us vs. Them.
Flags are the ultimate symbol of polarization. Either you’re on our team or you’re not. And if you aren’t willing to play by the flag flyers’ rules, then get the hell out. Love it or leave it.
It’s very comforting to be a member of a group. You’re accepted. You’re part of the norm. You’re just like us.
But in order to form a group, you have to be willing to believe that all of your members feel the same way about things. And, hey, you’re a good person, right? So if everyone in your group is just like you, then you must be the good guys.
What does that say about those who are excluded from that group? They must be bad. That only makes sense.
And we (“we”) wonder why we can’t all just get along.
On the anniversary of 9/11, I saw a Facebook post that waxed nostalgic for 9/12. It talked about stores running out of flags to sell because they were being flown everywhere. It talked about us all being Americans before anything else. It talked about us being united.
I remember it quite differently. I remember fear and paranoia and confusion and anger. Yes, I remember flags everywhere. Flags defiantly flown. I remember people getting beat up if they looked the slightest bit Muslim. I remember my employer trying to force me to wear a flag pin, and feeling as though my livelihood would be threatened if I didn’t jump on the bandwagon. I remember not knowing what this angry, enormous mass of “we” was going to do.
That scared the hell out of me. It still does.
I don’t even like rooting for sports teams. I don’t like turning anyone into a them. The only “thems” in my life at the moment are Trump supporters. I don’t understand them. The level of hate they demonstrate terrifies me, because I know that to them, I’m the them.
I absolutely love fireworks. I think of it as art, writ large. Light is the paint and the sky is the canvas. It’s the purest form of joyously explosive creativity. That’s why the 4th of July is one of my favorite holidays here in the US.
So when I heard of the annual Celebration of Light in Vancouver, an international fireworks competition, I thought it was the perfect time to visit my friend Martin, who lives there. The celebration is on three separate days in July, and I was only able to catch one of them, but it was very much worth it.
On the night I attended, it was Australia putting on the show from the middle of English Bay, and they did a fantastic job. I couldn’t help but compare it to the dozens of American Independence Day fireworks that I’d seen throughout the years, but there was something different here. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at first.
Eventually I figured it out. This event had not one whiff of patriotism. No flags. No “Proud to Be an American” blaring out of the loudspeakers. No drunken political rants. No us vs. them. No “we are better than you are”. It was refreshing.
Don’t get me wrong. I do love my country, and I consider myself lucky for having been born here. But I’m not always proud of everything it does. I couldn’t bring myself to watch the Republican National Convention, for example. Every time I thought of doing so, my stomach would ache.
And perhaps because I am an American, I believe strongly in freedom of speech and expression, so it rankles when patriotism is forced down my throat, even when I already feel it. I don’t like to be pressured by society. I can already imagine the negative responses I’m going to get just for writing this.
At the Celebration of Light on the night in question, it was estimated that 300,000 people attended. 300,000 people who were not trying to be or think a certain way. 300,000 people who had nothing to prove. They were just out to enjoy some fireworks and revel in the mild summer breezes. It was really, really good to be there, spending time with a dear friend in a relaxed atmosphere.
Incidentally, on July 3oth, it will be the USA competing in this event. I wish I could go. I’d be curious to see if they try to inject any patriotism into it. The Netherlands competed on the first night. I wonder who will win?
What follows are a few of the pictures I took at the celebration. But in case I didn’t say this while you were my gracious host, thanks, Canada. Thanks very much.