KOUTOULAS: Choose your symbols thoughtfully

Published 1:26 pm Friday, September 11, 2020

Last Saturday morning, I took down a decorative, seasonal flag from the standard on our front porch and replaced it with an American flag, which flew over the three-day Labor Day weekend. This is a ritual we repeat on nearly every national holiday.

In my lifetime, I’ve seen attitudes toward the stars and stripes changing.

Growing up, I never met anyone who viewed Old Glory as anything but a positive symbol of an exceptional nation of people.

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During the bicentennial commemoration of 1976, a wave of patriotism saw our nation’s flag revered and displayed perhaps as never before.

That may have been the zenith of American reverence for our flag.

In the ensuing years, I’ve become aware of the myriad ways in which our flag is viewed, both in our nation and abroad.

Many still see it as a hopeful symbol of what our country can be at its best.

Others see it as a symbol of oppression.

A few view it as a reminder that the world is far too divided, that nationalism is not the best way forward for humanity.

Some are ambivalent about it.

I take a nuanced view of the American flag — one that reflects my feelings about our nation itself.

From the start, we were a country born of contradiction. The same men who wrote the stirring words of the Declaration of Independence proclaiming the equality of all people were themselves enslavers of people.

Through the years, the U.S. has been at times a beacon of freedom and hope for our people and people around the world. At other times, we’ve failed miserably to act out our highest ideals.

The pressure for the westward expansion of our nation in the 19th century led to the disgraceful treatment of native peoples, and a war fought with Mexico for the sole purpose of taking land we coveted.

It took nearly a century from the time the Declaration was written until the Emancipation Proclamation at long last freed enslaved African-Americans and another century to enact meaningful civil rights legislation.

We still haven’t fully delivered on the promise of complete equality for all.

Even during World War II — while fighting fascism in Europe — here at home, we sent millions of Americans of Japanse descent into internment camps.

Yet, I still believe firmly that the world is a better place because there is a country called the United States of America.

For all of our failings, we have been that beacon of hope for most of our nearly 250 years of existence.

Even when we fail to live up to our ideals, we are able to self-reflect, to make corrections, to try to do better.

There are always those among us willing to sacrifice to ensure that America does not forget our lofty ideals.

This is what I’m reminded of when I gaze upon the Stars and Stripes. I see an imperfect union of imperfect people with high hopes and expectations for a better tomorrow.

Symbols tend to be like that — not necessarily good or bad, but somewhere in the gray area in between.

Sometimes the distinction is clearer.

Take the symbol used by Germany’s Nazi party under Hitler. I can think of nothing nuanced about it. It represents nothing but hatred, division and the notion that some humans are superior and more deserving of life than others.

Germany has a long and proud history, and the Nazi era was only a small part of that. Thankfully, the Nazi symbol was only used during those terrible Hitler years — making it easy to separate from the more positive aspects of the German identity.

It boggles the mind to consider that there are Americans today who proudly display the Nazi symbol. I can think of no reason one would want to do that, other than to signal that they agree with that terrible ideology.

Symbols are powerful things. Those we choose to display and revere speak volumes about our character. We should choose carefully.

Pete Koutoulas is an IT professional working in Lexington. He and his wife have resided in Winchester since 2015. Pete can be reached at pete@koutoulas.me or follow him on Facebook at fb.me/PeteTheSun.