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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The American Flag: Freedom, War, Capitalism

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The American flag is the greatest and most enduring symbol of the United States of America. It represents both America and Americans, home and abroad. It connects America's past with its present. It is the one entity that binds all Americans together; they are united by their flag but are otherwise a melting pot of disparate identities, histories and concerns.

The flag has been a constant that has flown over a revolutionary war, a civil war, imperial wars and wars of freedom for others. It adorns commercial products, cars and corporate logos. And it flies above arguably the most patriotic nation in the world. The Stars and Stripes is perhaps the most recognized symbol on this planet. To some it represents oppression, to others it is, in Lincoln's words, "the last, best hope of earth."

Over a four-month period, I traveled more than 30,000 kilometers and visited 32 states of America to try to discover what exactly the Stars and Stripes means to Americans.

"Freedom" is the instinctive response given by most Americans when considering what the flag means to them. When pushed to elaborate, some list the civil rights they associate with this ideal, while others rephrase "supposed to represent." A white veteran with a brain tumor who receives no state aid and lives in a tent in Florida felt he had the "freedom to go hungry," while his young son felt he had "freedom to ride my bike." Others, who have fallen afoul of the law, like one young mechanic in Arkansas, had nothing positive to say: "This place sucks. You're not free here. They do you with laws, not force."

There is a genuine fear of being ostracized and branded "un-American" -- the ultimate sin. Many people choose not to exercise their freedom of speech for this reason because it is viewed as dangerous and not without consequences. A Texan lady, when speaking about politics, resignedly said: "Here, you can't say a whole lot. You can, it's just that you'd be so outnumbered. You'd lose a few friends."

The Stars and Stripes is the American battle flag. It represents the military, and those that have fought and died for the flag. "When I see our flag I think about our military and bombs bursting in the air. When I see another country's flag I think more of their culture," a musician in Florida explained. Both America and the identity of its citizens have been shaped by war throughout the course of the 20th century. The association of the flag with the military is inevitable.

Lyndon Johnson once described America as "a nation of nations." Throughout America's past and present, immigration and nativism have been on many people's agendas. "They should at least learn English," a fisherman from Louisiana felt, echoing the thoughts of many others. Most Americans, whom I spoke to, believe that immigrants have come, and are still coming, to America in search of freedom. Most immigrants, whom I spoke to, claim it is for economic reasons. The misconception goes deeper though. Most Americans believe that the "third world" equates to a lack of freedom, either in the form of a dictatorship or poverty. "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" are viewed as being intrinsically linked with dollars and "the American way." Many Americans, whom I spoke to, believe they enjoy an unparalleled level of freedom and a quality of life that others could and should have; and that they should be American export products.

More cynical Americans see the flag as a symbol of capitalism. The dollar is one of the greatest symbols of America, but it is the unabashed pursuit of it that such people see as defining America and Americans. Throughout America, the largest flags are those seen flying above parking lots, another powerful American symbol. Placing a flag on a product seems to be good for sales, be it on Band Aids, cigarette lighters or cellphone covers. The flag appears to have become a brand in itself. There is an inherent paradox in the commercial exploitation of the flag. The majority of Americans, whom I spoke to, seemed to take offense at the willful disregard of their most sacred symbol, and yet most are happy to see it exploited for commercial gain. Some view this commercialization as disrespectful, but the majority laugh or simply shrug it off as the American way. If you can turn a buck off it, it can't be wrong. As one New Yorker joked: "When we're attacked, we print T-shirts. Capitalism and the gun are what made this country. Our whole economy is based on war and Christmas."

Americans do not associate their flag with the U.S. government. The government is seen as transient, the flag as transcendent. The flag represents the people and their country, not the politicians who represent them; citizens pledge their allegiance to the flag, not to their president. "The flag directly represents us today," said one man in Alabama.

The flag transcends any negative connotations for the vast majority of Americans whom I spoke to. It appears to possess immunity from the consequences of any actions that are not befitting to its image in America. "The flag is an ideal, not a law," as one astute young man pointed out in El Paso.

National identity and patriotism (or the lack thereof) are often expressions of locality. What many love or hate about America is what they know: their land, their city, their life, unconnected to the lives of the hundreds of millions of other citizens. The flag is the symbolic representation of these people's experience, their lives and histories. An old black man in Alabama said he had never owned a flag, and stated he would refuse to accept one even as a gift.

The foundations of American patriotism are laid in schools throughout the country. Flags fly in classrooms, gymnasiums, cafeterias and hallways. In many schools, children from the age of five pledge allegiance to the Stars and Stripes on a weekly or even daily basis. Teachers and parents cultivate new patriots; the media and politicians reinforce the process. A sense of belonging, shared experience and national pride ensues. In the words of one homeless Vietnam vet, "The flag's our gang symbol. It's our gang."

Despite Americans' bravado, a prevailing sense of insecurity and a need for reassurance exists. Americans turn to their flag for this, especially in times of crisis; and yet, it is only a symbol, a piece of cloth. It is the repetitions of, and belief in, slogans like "Land of the free, home of the brave," and politicians wearing flag pins on their lapels, that infuse a symbol with meaning and power.

There is huge diversity in what the flag and being an American means. There is no single American reality. The flag symbolizes each person, past and present, as an individual, a microfiber in a thread of their flag, their country, America.

Piers Gladstone, a freelance writer based in London, contributed this essay to The Moscow Times. Photographs from the journey by Sveva Costa Sanseverino can be found at www.movingstills.com.