Flying the Flag

The other day I was chatting with a long-time local business man in my hometown, Cooperstown, NY, who occasionally reads my local newspaper column. He brought up the recent decision of the Village of Cooperstown to officially fly the Gay Pride flag on Village property. He expressed discomfort with at least some aspects of gay lifestyle, and clearly felt that the Village action did not represent him and, by implication, others who shared his reaction.

An isolated reaction, some might think. Isn’t being gay now an accepted parrt of public life? Yes, it is, but not everyone understands it in the same way.

There are still a lot of people unsettled about minority challenges to traditional cultural norms, and distressed by what they see as political correctness being foisted on society. It’s not always clear, they say, where the resolution of long-standing injustice ends, and where resentment and ideological fervor take over.

My friend went a step further. He contrasted the Village trustees’ unanimous support of flying the pride flag with local protests against the display and sale of the Confederate flag–a debate which has been carried on in this newspaper.

Those who feel upset about the Confederate flag, he suggested, are being heard and respected, if not necessarily agreed with, while the lingering discomforts he and others feel about gay pride and other social movements are somehow, in his view, not up for discussion.

It’s since been reported that the Village has decided to “study what flags to fly.” That presupposes that the Village is open to flying any number of flags representing any number of issues.

In a polarized society like ours, this is asking for trouble, as a recent editorial pointed out. The reason is that all government institutions, including the Village of Cooperstown, are unique is that they represent not just some of us, but all of us. Indeed, that is their obligation.

If our government starts picking and choosing among group flags, it runs the risk of playing a zero-sum game of boosting some groups over others, of choosing what will be seen as winners over losers, of the righteous over the sinful, and so deepening our polarization.

Flags, other than the American flag, represent only a piece of the whole, and not the whole itself. They inevitably divide us into opposing groups. The Confederate flag, perhaps the most divisive of all, nonetheless represents the history of an important part of this country, and has value if only as a sobering reminder of slavery, our worst failure as a nation.

With all that in mind, the only flag that seems appropriate for any government entity to fly would be the American flag–the unique symbol of all of us, and of the common citizenship we share equally without distinction. (The only flags otherwise representing all of us are the New York State flag, for instance, and possibly the POW/MIA flag since the military is an arm of our government.)

Only a government flag which stands for all of us–the American flag above all–can claim to represent all of us. Such a flag stands in for the sum of all the other specific group flags we can imagine, to the Pride flag, to the UN flag, and even the Confederate flag. Maybe there’s an environmental flag somewhere, or a Women’s Rights flag, or a Black Lives Matter flag.

Let them all fly freely, but not by official government sanction. To insist that government at any level endorse the claims and values of one or another group, no matter how righteous and virtuous they may actually be, is a recipe for division at best, and backlash at worst.

But isn’t government the place where we’re supposed to settle our issues? Yes it is, and it’s true that our elected representatives can’t help but bring their individual passions and prejudices to the table. That’s how diversity is supposed to work.

But their job is–or ought to be–to have enough respect for their opponents to preserve the neutrality of the political space they have to share, and not try to redefine it in their image.

A guide here may be the separation of church and state. We usually think of “church” as a religious institution of some kind. But we can also think of it more broadly as any kind of belief system, often embodied in some social movement, secular as well as sacred, ideological as well as religious.

According to the First Amendment, Congress “shall make no law” establishing religion or “prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” If we understand this to include secular as well as religious beliefs, then there should be no place for any official government endorsement of particular groups or movements, such as flying their flags. But at the same time, there must also be no restriction on the rights of such movements to freely express their own views, and fly their flags freely.

The political space that is separated from religion (or belief, or opinion) is open to all by virtue of its being a neutral space of mutual respect. Making sure that no beliefs are enshrined in law, and yet that none are prohibited in practice, paradoxically guarantees the freedom of belief. Preserving such a space for exercising freedom has been the genius of American politics. Let’s keep it that way.

Adrian Kuzminski is a scholar, writer and citizen activist who has written a wide variety of books on economics, politics, and democracy.