Jason Walsh: On stars, stripes and Sonoma

America's first flag -- aka the 'grand union flag' -- was used by the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.


“You’re the emblem of the land I love, the home of the free and the brave!” – George M. Cohan, “You’re a Grand Old Flag”

“But the system is racist, when the murderers are acquitted – so we ride in the streets, then you say we shouldn’t have did it” – KRS-One, “American Flag”

The American flag means different things to different people.

That much was evident last week at Sonoma Valley High School when what should have been the simple ordering of a campus club T-shirt morphed into a divisive barometer of community patriotism – who’s using it, and who’s abusing it.

It all started when SVHS administrators learned members of the school’s Future Farmers of America student group were placing orders for the program’s 2017 shirts – cotton T’s whose design sported a vertical American flag with an eagle and FFA emblem emblazoned across.

School officials say they hadn’t seen or approved the design and wanted to tread carefully before marching ahead.

In these times of national anthem protests over racial injustice and debates over who’s American enough and who isn’t, everyday symbols like the Stars and Stripes are readily hijacked by some who’d prefer to convey nationalism and intimidation rather than hope and unity. And so school officials got nervous.

It was through this at-times toxic political lens that SVHS officials took a cautious approach to the student group ordering a patriotic shirt as part of a school with a 59 percent non-white student population – a population that is witnessing the kind of mainstreaming of minority disenfranchisement that hasn’t been seen in a generation.

As SVHS Principal Kathleen Hawing told the Index-Tribune, “In light of the current sentiment in the country and a desire to be sensitive to how some classmates might perceive the new shirts, we want FFA to ‘pause’ in its plans.”

But these days, no sensitive pause goes unpunished.

Within hours, if not minutes, of the faculty deliberations on the FFA shirt a bogus rumor went viral that the school was banning the American flag.

Not only does it appear school officials failed to foresee the obvious potential fallout from putting a hand-check on the flag shirts, but when the fallout started happening, they handled it clumsily.

Reports that other flag-themed apparel was getting the once-over around campus began circulating and the Index-Tribune was soon receiving emails that largely followed along the lines of this one:

“No more American flag over Sonoma Valley High School because it is offensive to the Hispanic students who are not legal!”

A smattering of other comments sent to the paper included such gems as: “Kathleen Hawing should be fired immediately”; “disgusted and appalled”; “national symbols being trampled!” “if it offends you, don’t live here”; “love it or leave it”; and the refreshingly direct, “get the f—k out!”

These, it should be stressed, were from adults, not high school students.

One foreboding email declared, “We’ve bent over to appease the America haters long enough… I’m taking a stand.”

Yeah, wherever SVHS officials got the idea that gestures of so-called patriotism can be intimidating sure beats me.

Lost in the firestorm of SVHS fumbling and “I’m not a racist, but…” emails was the fact that the actual shirt design is pretty innocuous. It’s one of the livelier choices from an FFA-apparel website filled with mostly benign cotton-knit options. “It looked cool and represented FFA,” was how member Oliver Cannard described the decision-making process.

Unless there’s more to it than that – SVHS should go ahead and let FFA order the shirts.

That said, school officials are wise to scrutinize any branding that comes out of SVHS and, yes, that includes shirts with American flags.

Because the American flag means different things to different people.

To some it’s an emblem of hope and equality, to others it’s welcoming and inclusive. Diversity. Honor. Courage. Who could argue?

To some it’s filled with promise.

Yet, to others, a promise unfulfilled.

To Superman, it’s truth, justice and the American way.

In darker corners of the nation’s psyche, it’s a banner for nativism and ignorance – just ask the “good people” who brandished Old Glory this summer at the white power rallies in Charlottesville.

In many ways the American flag is everyone’s – and at the same time it’s no one’s.

It doesn’t belong to any one group or ideology. Not to progressives or conservatives, cabbies or cops. It’s not about journalists, it’s not about presidents. The flag doesn’t wave any more gloriously for gardeners than it does for veterans than it does for teachers than it does for gravediggers. It doesn’t care if you’re a “daughter of the revolution” or a DACA American.

There was even a time when the American flag didn’t mean much of anything at all.

In its Revolutionary War incarnation, it was patterned after the flag of the British East India Company, the rogue colonizing force that wrought havoc in 19th century Asia, and sported a Union Jack where the “stars” would one day be. And that was just the first of 27 different designs over the decades. For a hundred years it had no claims toward patriotism; it was a marker of American territory – raised to identify allegiance at a fort, or on a slave ship.

But today its meaning has grown as exponentially as the U.S. population.

French philosopher Jacques Derrida wrote volumes about the concepts of “meaning” and “symbolism.” He believed that images take on the meaning given them by the observer, whether that interpretation is inherent in the object, or ever intended by its creators. The object becomes a genuine symbol of that meaning, no matter how misguided or opaque that interpretation seems to everyone else.

Which means there are about 323.1 million valid interpretations of the American flag in this country alone.

And here’s one that has stuck in my memory for many years:

A high school friend of mine named Tuan Lam had come to the United States in the mid 1970s, having escaped war-torn South Vietnam by the skin of his teeth. He once told me the story of when his family took flight from their village, after the U.S. withdrawal and the fall of Saigon. The Lams and several other families made their way toward Cambodia by river, on two large boats. Just as they neared the border, a North Vietnamese patrol boat charged out of nowhere. In desperation, the passengers on Tuan Lam’s boat draped a makeshift American flag over the side, in the hopes that if the patrol could seize just one of the boats, it would choose the craft that didn’t brandish the stars ‘n’ bars – and whatever implications that might carry.

Sure enough, the patrol overtook the other boat, and Tuan’s family escaped to Cambodia and, eventually, to America.

I’ll never forget cryptic way he described watching the other families taken by the soldiers – to who knows what fate – while his escaped to freedom.

“It was the first time I ever knew,” he said looking back, “what if felt like to be an American.”

From the Revolutionary War to the rivers of South Vietnam to Sonoma Valley High School – the American flag means different things to different people.

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