When Donald Trump won the election, Polish activist Martin Mycielski freaked out a little. Mycielski is a member of the Committee for Defense of Democracy, an organization that’s currently committed to opposing (or at least slowing down) the Neo-Authoritarian Law and Justice Party that has recently taken power in Poland. After the US election Mycielski believed he saw the same situation happening here in the United States. In an effort to save his American counterparts the confusion he and his friends went through as they watched Poland regress, Mycielski wrote a guide called Year 1 Under Authoritarianism, What to Expect? The guide started as a PDF, but eventually grew into the website LearnFromEurope.org.
The entire site is a great read, but what stood out to me was expectation number 12:
#12: They will take over your national symbols, associate them with their regime, remake them into attributes of their power. They want you to forget that your flag, your anthem and your symbols belong to you, the People, to everyone equally. Don’t let them be hijacked. Use and expose them in your fight as much as they do. Show your national symbols with pride, let them give you strength, not associate you with the tyranny they brought onto your country.
When it comes to our own national symbols, what do we think of when we see the American Flag? What do we think when we see it flying over someone’s house, or see it on a bumper sticker or in the rear windshield of a pickup truck. Without words, the symbol tells a story. And there’s a set of assumptions and politics embedded in that story. Maybe the individual flying the flag wants to tell that story, or maybe we’ve just heard it so often that we tell it to ourselves each time we see the flag. Either way, the story it tells is undeniable. And that story isn’t always a good one. When Trump speaks at his rallies he is lined with American flags. His self-association with this symbol is not an accident. He’s trying to tie himself into and reinforce a specific story about America. A story about xenophobia, hate, and greed. It’s a story that’s not our story. It’s a story we don’t identify with.
As concerned citizens, we have a different vision of America. A vision that most of us have realized is going to take an enormous amount of hard work. Given the effort we’ve all undertaken it might seem strange that I’m talking to you about stories. How can the flag and the story it tells help us? Well, part of the work we must do involves changing that story the flag tells, to ourselves, and to the rest of the world. How can we rewrite that story? The road is far shorter than you think. Let’s start with what makes us ‘concerned citizens’ in the first place. We are concerned because we hold a vision of America in our heads that we don’t see happening. We have ideas about what America should be, and, by proxy, what the American flag should stand for. In our America, the flag would stand for equality instead of class immobility. Inclusion and religious freedom instead of homophobia and xenophobia. Prosperity for all instead of prosperity limited to only a few. Democracy instead of voter suppression and gerrymandering. That’s not a complete list but I think it covers quite a bit of our shared vision.
Next, we have to ask ourselves what our relationship is to this positive vision of America. Specifically, are we going to quit before we make that vision a reality? My answer is no. I’m willing to bet that your answer is no as well. And with our commitment to our potential America comes a subtle but monumental shift. We become the authors of the new American Story. We become the stewards of the future of this nation. We’ve just assumed imminent ownership of this country, and all the symbols and tokens of power that come with it. We’ve just assumed ownership of the American flag.
With that ownership comes responsibility. It’s now our job to show everyone what that symbol means. It’s now our job to show everyone our vision of America, and, in so doing, show them that our vision is America.How do we do we make the story of the American flag clear?It’s simple, we fly it, unadorned and unsubverted, in our homes and in the streets. We fly it alongside all our other symbols of protest and resistance against corruption and hate. Make this symbol of America part of your identity and your story as a concerned citizen. Take pictures with you and your friends with the flag. Share them on social media. And when anyone asks you about it, tell them your story and tell them about the future of America. Tell them about what the flag can and should stand for. Tell them how they can help tell this new story.
The sight of you and the flag together, the practice of displaying and flying it, is what will spread the message and write the story. Together, we’ll tell this story over and over again, until everyone knows it so well that they hear that story every time they see an American flag. Doing the work to build the government and culture we envision will take time, but we can claim our spot as the authors of America’s future right now. Let’s fly the flag together, as a symbol for all the things we know it can stand for.