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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Waite

Whose Broad Stripes

Biking through Seattle’s industrial district last summer, I was passed by a loud pickup truck waving a large American flag. Instead of pride, my initial reaction was vitriol. The Stars and Stripes might as well have been the Confederate flag.

I questioned myself. Why did I react so negatively to seeing the very flag that’s supposed to represent me just as much as it represents that pickup driver? When did I start to feel assaulted by my own flag? Perhaps I would have reacted differently if the flag were smaller and being waved from the window of a quiet electric car. Then it might have been an inspiring symbol. But isn’t the fact that my perception can be so easily colored part of the problem?

I’ve never been especially patriotic. I know I’m fortunate to have grown up in America and lead a life that’s downright luxurious compared to lives led in other parts of the world. But that’s exactly the dynamic that undercuts my patriotism. Only recently did I realize that my reaction is against American exceptionalism, the idea that this country is supposed to be the shiniest example of success for all the world to see. The problem is that for someone or some country to be the best, others have to be worse. The inherent divide is tucked into the first part of the word: Except. Exceptionalism is a concept built on exclusion, an us versus them. We’re the best, so you’re not.

But who does “we” include? The kneeling during the National Anthem (back when sports was a thing) was, at least in part, about questioning who is truly represented by the flag. And I guess that’s why I reacted negatively when I saw the pickup truck. The incident came at a time when I was thinking about the flag anyway, because I had just visited the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia. The whole point of a flag is to help mark independence, to declare this land as “ours,” not “theirs.” Somehow, then, it feels like waving a flag will always be an affront.

The most patriotic I’ve ever felt was in the days after 9/11. Even now, watching clips of W. shouting into that bullhorn from Ground Zero evokes a spirit of resilience. It reminds me of our ability to come together. When this pandemic was taking hold, I expressed some optimism to Kathleen. I said maybe this is exactly what America needs: a national event to unite us.

But then NY Times columnist David Brooks threw a wet blanket on that. On Meet the Press he said he’d been researching people’s reactions to pandemics throughout history, and while events such as war can be uniting, pandemics and economic downturns are dividing—they breed fear and fear breeds anger and hate.

For obvious reasons, there’s been a lot of discussion about the 1918 influenza pandemic. A recent NY Times piece on the perception of American exceptionalism details that not only has the death toll of the flu largely been overshadowed by the broader narrative of WWI—despite the fact that the disease claimed more American lives than the war—but the American Revolution coincided with an outbreak of smallpox. It’s interesting that history focuses on the wars.

Many a bellicose metaphor have been employed during this Covid-19 pandemic. And rightly so. It’s officially claimed more American lives than the Vietnam War, and the battle against the disease is going to be a slow struggle. War gives people a common enemy, a fight to join, and the hope of a victory to celebrate. So let’s stick with the parallels to war. Let’s remember that America has the same invisible foe as every country in the world. No amount of exceptionalism could spare us this time. Americans’ cells are just as vulnerable as everyone else’s.

The United States is supposed to be proof that disparate people can come together to form an ambitious union, citizens governed by the same set of laws, saluting the same flag. If climate change wasn’t enough, maybe this pandemic can finally be a turning point. Maybe now we can all embrace the fact that we’re citizens of the world as much as we are citizens of our countries or states.

This week, I heard a report that researchers in the UK—the land the U.S. Colonies once fought so hard to free themselves from—might be on a more aggressive timeline toward a vaccine because Oxford scientists were already developing a coronavirus vaccine prior to Covid-19. The only way we’re going to win this war is by coming together. After all, the virus doesn’t care about borders and flags. —Andrew Waite

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