And YOU Get a Flag!
Updated: Sep 18, 2021
...or at least a stripe
I wrote about flags last year when I noticed the proliferation of campaign flags in the run up to the 2020 election. I can't seem to resist thinking about these flapping markers of pride, identity, and grievance. Lately, I've been fixated on the evolution of the "thin blue line" flag, originally flown in support of law enforcement.* Now I see "thin red line" flags (the red represents firefighters), combination blue-red flags, and increasingly, a series of "line" flags with an array of colored stripes representing workers in corrections, emergency services, the military, etc.
How should I understand these flags? I support people in all of these professions who are doing their work honorably. I also believe that they and their families should be proud of that work. In English, the idiom "fly the flag" means to show show strong support or pride for something. I'm sure that this sentiment is a major driver of these displays, but I wonder about the growth in popularity of these flags recently. Many of these professions have been part of the fabric of our our American society almost since its inception. Why the sudden need to display these flags now?
One answer probably lies in our cultural shift towards public displays of opinion and identity, a tendency that has been supercharged by the internet. The resulting attention scrum means that only the most angry, emotional, and aggrieved voices rise to the top. The increased polarization of our society also pushes us towards our own "people" and encourages us to signal our allegiances to our chosen tribes.
I've also noticed that in most of these flags, the joyful red, white, and blue of our national flag is represented in grayscale. In some, the graphics appear distressed with uneven edges and mottled printing. Some feature phrases such as "no one fights alone." These are battle flags that feel somber rather than celebratory. The use of the U.S. flag as a template implies a patriotic struggle with the featured group (or increasingly, groups) on the righteous side of an important conflict.
When I noticed the embattled aesthetic of these flags, and the types of groups that are often included on them, reminded me of an interview that Ezra Klein conducted with Tressie McMillan Cottom in April 2021. Cottom is a fascinating thinker with original insights on a broad range of topics. I actually listened to most of this interview twice and also read her collection of essays (Thick). From what I have read and heard, status, class, and meritocracy are touchpoints for Cottom. She points out that our American cultural understanding of the concepts of merit and status especially (i.e., the American Dream) drive lopsided social policy and inequity generally. In conversation with Klein, she explained how politicians perpetuate this with one "high status" group (military veterans):
We make horrible education policy for veterans. They have some of the highest rates of student loan defaults. The money that they’re given to go to college rarely translates into them going into high quality institutions, but you try to talk to somebody about making the G.I. Bill more robust, and they will have a public meeting in the middle of Capitol Hill.
Everybody shows up. There’s the equivalent of bible thumping, and then they
will all close the doors — and both sides of the aisle, by the way, will close the
door and will agree to not do anything to protect veteran students, but the
veterans believe that they’re protected, you see? That’s what matters. They
believe. How else do you get somebody to sign up for something like military
service when they’re poor and working class and from places with poor
You do it by saying, yeah, you won’t be rich, but everybody will value you, we'll
give you status instead of money. This is one of the allures of becoming a
police officer where status can far outstrip the economic rewards of being a
police officer to take on the risk of doing the job.
Perhaps these flags are evidence that this contract is growing stale, with the groups depicted on these flags feeling that they are no longer being afforded the status required to offset what is demanded of them by our society. The percentage of Americans serving in the military is tiny and in certain areas, it's unlikely that the average person knows anyone who serves. EMTs and nurses were hailed as "heroes" in the darkest days of the COVID pandemic yet citizens (and political leaders) are now behaving in ways that put them at unnecessary risk. Activists' demands to "defund the police" have certainly frustrated law enforcement officers. Certain professions tend to align themselves with law enforcement because they work closely with police (e.g., corrections officers, EMTs, firefighters). Because of this, they may also be responding in a defensive way to a collective perceived threat.
In the cases where a "line" flag is flown to signal membership to an elite tribe, I am concerned that this might trigger an "us versus them" mentality within these communities. The "battle flag" aesthetic of some of these flags reinforces this, even if that is not the owner's purpose. While I don't pretend to fully understand the challenges of any of these professions, I sometimes sense that I am expected to accept that certain jobs deserve unlimited trust and minimal accountability because they are so beyond my ability to comprehend. Although I consider it a mostly separate case, the adoption of the "Punisher" logo as a symbol of law enforcement is an extreme example of this. That message is antithetical to the accountability and oversight demanded by our democratic society.
People have every right to fly whatever flag they choose in our country. I mostly worry that people are displaying "line" flags out of a beleaguered sense of underappreciation. Public servants should be treated with maximum respect and be afforded generous benefits for the work they do (beyond occasional public praise). If these public servants don't feel like they are getting what they deserve, public policy should certainly address that. But they should also situate themselves proudly within our local and national communities, and embrace accountability that comes with such important roles within a diverse society. This is a lofty and aspirational sentiment as old as the founding of our republic- good thing we already have a flag to celebrate it.
*I won't focus on the "thin blue line" flag here. Although that flag's design seems to have inspired many of the other "line" flags I am seeing, the semiotics of the "thin blue line" flag have become especially complicated and political. That flag's eventual connection to the Blue Lives Matter movement (in opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement) and related symbols such as the "Punisher" logo point to a divergence from the other flags that I'm writing about here.