On Flying The Flag

COLUMN

VIEW FROM FLY CREEK

On Flying The Flag

By ADRIAN KUZMINSKI  • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com

A balloon drifts past the flagpole at Main and Pioneer, Cooperstown, during the Clinton Regatta in May. (Jim Kevlin/AllOTSEGO.com)

The other day I was chatting with a long-time local business man in Cooperstown who occasionally reads this 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 part 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 in this newspaper 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 U.N. 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, retired Hartwick College philosophy professor and Sustainable Otsego moderator, lives in Fly Creek.


3 thoughts on “On Flying The Flag

  1. William

    That was a perfect article. Fly the US, State, County, City, and military flags on govt. property only.

  2. R. Seward

    Editor, The Freeman’s Journal:
    The Journal’s coverage last week of the controversy over the display of the Rainbow Flag lacks perspective–to the point of blindness–particularly where the Rainbow flag is conflated with the Confederate flag.
    The six stripes—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet—of the 1978 Rainbow flag is a world-wide emblem representing an ongoing struggle for equal rights under the law for LGBTQ people.
    These rights are basic: the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, to freedom of expression and association, to living openly without discrimination, to personal autonomy. The rights have to do with parenthood and families, intimate relationships, and protections in the workplace and in health care. In other words, the rights that all U.S. citizens enjoy.
    The modern display of the Confederate flag means something totally different. It means the denial of equal rights, it is about white supremacy, it is embraced by the Ku Klux Klan. It does not represent liberty and justice for all.
    As Consuelo Kraham Velez notes in these same pages, we “know what is really being ‘telegraphed’” with a Confederate flag display.
    Under the Constitution’s first amendment any flag can be flown, including the Nazi flag. Would the Journal conflate that too with the Rainbow flag? Surely the Village Trustees, a body elected by the community, could and did make these distinctions.
    Recent Journal articles regarding the flag controversy are a near crib of Vice President Mike Pence’s June 2019 comments that “one flag should fly”—this in response to requests by U.S. embassies in Germany, Israel, Brazil, and Latvia to fly the Rainbow flag during Pride Month. Several embassies raised the flag without bothering to ask, and a number of U.S. states and cities promptly hoisted the flag over statehouses and city halls to show their support for equality.
    Pence has a long history of anti-LGBTQ views. He supports giving businesses and individuals the right to discriminate against LGBTQ people on religious grounds. And on Friday the administration took steps to rollback workplace protections regarding sexual or gender identity. In other words, you could be fired legally on the grounds of your sexuality or gender.
    Refusing to display the Rainbow flag on the grounds of patriotism as the vice president did, or on the grounds of the “neutrality of the political space,” as a Journal’ s columnist suggests, only plays into homophobia and gives it room to fester. The lived experiences of LGBTQ individuals shows how hollow that so-called neutrality is.
    Flying flags gives meaning in certain environments and at certain times. In the current climate, a public display of the Rainbow flag becomes all the more compelling. It makes the point: We support equal rights for the LGBTQ community in Cooperstown. We have your back.
    And look, being LGBTQ is not a “belief system” nor a “lifestyle.” That ab absurdo premise to an argument is as ridiculous as it is insulting and beneath contempt. The rich and famous have “lifestyles”, doctors and lawyers and millennials may have “lifestyles”. Being LGBTQ is about “life”.
    When the Stars and Stripes represents equal rights for all Americans, raising the Rainbow flag will be unnecessary.

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