The American flag, the 50 stars on a field of navy and the 13 stripes of red and white, have long signified freedom. If the words we recited every day in elementary school are to be believed, the flag also stands for liberty and justice for all.
Ironically there was one other word in the Pledge to the Flag that really seems to struggle today. Indivisible. Our “one nation” is as divided as it has been in 150 years and somewhere along the line the flag itself, the very symbol of indivisibility, has become divisive.
I recently rode more than 2000 miles in one week with a boyhood friend on our American-made Indian motorcycles. My friend and I had set out on a similar journey when we were in college, much to my father’s chagrin, and enjoyed the adventure of a lifetime, covering 20 states in 30 days on two wheels and just $300. Earlier this spring I called my old pal and asked him if he was up for a 35th-anniversary tour. He said yes.
This trip was markedly different. The bikes were bigger, newer and better. Our cell phones provided a safety valve that didn’t even exist in our imagination in the mid-1980s, and our budget was considerably better than $10 a day.
On this trip we traveled from northern Florida to central Maine, taking the extremely scenic route. The ride took us along coastal Florida, watching the waves crash as we rode, then weaved over through the Georgia and Tennessee mountains. We took in the sights on the Blue Ridge Parkway and then enjoyed back roads through the Pennsylvania farmlands and rural America through the entire northeast. We stayed off the interstate highway system as best we could and consciously avoided large metropolitan areas, opting instead to ride back roads through small towns.
It was those small towns that gave me hope in these troubled and divisive times. In community after community, I saw the America that our flag has traditionally promised. I saw schools with signage congratulating their top achievers. I saw VFW halls promoting bean suppers. I met friendly, helpful people virtually everywhere. In one Virginia town, I became separated from my riding partner when he turned left and I turned right. I pulled over to track him down on my cell phone and within two minutes a pickup truck that had to be at least 30 years old pulled over beside me and a middle-aged, long-haired driver asked, “You okay? You need anything?”
I was indeed okay, but considering that in Washington D.C. most people avoid eye contact, let alone offer to help you, the moment had an impact on me. The stranger was checking to make sure I wasn’t in trouble and if I was, he was ready to interrupt his own day and offer a hand. That moment was what I grew up thinking the American flag represents. It represents an ideal. It is one that we as a nation at times fall short on, but it is a goal, a guideline that most work toward. The flag represents opportunity and responsibility. It represents a social contract to help make society better and in turn, have an opportunity to improve one’s own station in life.
Old Glory, as the flag is fondly referred to, represents a country of hope, of love, and of the chance to do better than your Mom and Dad did.
As I rode through small town after small town, I saw flags on telephone poles in the town centers, I saw them on mailboxes. I saw giant American flags painted on the side of more than one barn. As I saw some version of this patriotic scene play out mile after mile and experienced friendly, helpful people over and over, I began to grow hopeful. The American media has determined that pitting us against one another, by race, by income, by geographic location, by political party or by any number of other differences, they can get clicks online and views on the screen. It’s enough to make many believe that America is irreparably broken. We are bad. We are racist. We are selfish. We’re told this over and over and over and some people accept it as truth.
But it isn’t true. Not in the 2000 miles I just rode. I saw hope. I saw love. I saw people helping people. In each of the locations I witnessed this, there was a common theme. The American flag.
I was so buoyed by this delightful experience that I excitedly shared my thoughts over dinner with my boyhood friend and riding partner midway through our journey. He too had noticed the American flags, but his perception was quite different. My friend is college-educated, grew up in a safe, middle class environment and is a genuinely nice man. I’d trust him with my life. Our politics differ considerably, however. His hate for former president Trump knows no bounds. In my friend’s mind, the American flag is paired with Donald Trump and thus, is a bad thing. The site of these flags all over America worried him. He assumed most folks displaying these flags were racists.
And there it was.
If you want to make America great, you must be bad.
If you exercise patriotic pride and fly the American flag, you must be a racist.
I was stunned. My bubble of enthusiasm from the heartwarming ride experience was burst. How was it possible that one could interact with warm, friendly, helpful people through town after town but believe that because those same people were flying Old Glory they were racists? Apparently, because even bright, articulate, college-educated folks are influenced by the relentless pounding of our media. The glass wasn’t just half empty, it was smashed and shattered in pieces on the floor.
Amazon Prime features a series called “The Man in the High Castle.” The premise of the show is that the Nazis won WWII and control a significant part of America. In the series they carefully plot ways to get rid of American national pride and patriotism. Included on the list of things are to eradicate history as Americans know it and get rid of patriotic symbols. The Nazis make a grand event out of the destruction of the Statue of Liberty and the lemming citizens actually cheer as it occurs.
In a world where life imitates art, America is apparently at that same crossroads now. We are being challenged with erasing our real history and with the turning of our traditional symbols into something they were never intended to be. If a significant portion of American society believes that George Washington and Abe Lincoln were actually bad guys, believe that America was never that great anyway and that the American flag represents racism, we are in deep trouble.
I was blessed to see America up close and personal again during my Memorial Day weeklong ride. The people are good, their intentions are good and the flag that they proudly wave is most certainly good. Are any of those things perfect? Of course not, but we need to recognize … and indeed celebrate the goodness that exists. We need a media that doesn’t spend all day every day tearing down our own society and demonizing the American flag and those who embrace American ideals. Our future as a nation depends on it.
• Tim Constantine is a columnist for The Washington Times and hosts “The Capitol Hill Show” podcast every week from Washington, D.C.