“All across my country, in big cities and small towns, Ukrainian flags fly from American homes,” President Joe Biden told a crowd in Warsaw, Poland, last Tuesday.
The remark is irksome because, as a progressive, Biden represents the political wing of the American electorate that distances itself from patriotism and disavows our flag when reactionary anti-Trumpism is politically expedient.
A self-avowed hawk, I agree with American support of Ukraine and applaud President Volodymyr Zelensky for his resolve against Russia. But that does not make up for the American Left’s hypocritical approach to patriotism.
Dissing the American flag carried political cache on the left leading up to the 2020 election. In 2019, the Left cheered as Colin Kaepernick’s politicking led to Nike canceling its run of patriotic sneakers featuring the Betsy Ross flag.
Rebuking the flag and kneeling for the anthem demonstrate the simple-mindedness of patriotism, according to the Left’s logic. In 2021, the New York Times reported on the flag:
What was once a unifying symbol — there is a star on it for each state, after all — is now alienating to some, its stripes now fault lines between people who kneel while ‘The Star-Spangled Banner” plays and those for whom not pledging allegiance is an affront.
If the Left truly believed that social attitudes permanently tarnish national symbols, then Americans should expect the Biden administration to strip all pomp and ornamentation from its material aid to Ukraine. Gay marriage is illegal in Ukraine, with only a minority supporting the same-sex institution. Black Ukrainians experience racism.
But yet, that country’s flag still waves from American homes, even those, I imagine, sporting leftist propaganda lawn signs: the one touting that “Black Lives Matter” and “No Human Is Illegal.”
When American progressives see the Ukrainian flag, they do not see a complex society. They merely observe a sanitized and one-dimensional projection of Ukraine — Putin’s pro-Western foil.
No matter how much the rest of the world clamors for what we have, the Left cannot wholeheartedly embrace our national symbols and what they promise.
But what’s more, the American Left fails to see that this reductionist view of Ukraine is inevitable. No matter Ukraine’s role in fighting Russia on behalf of the West, all national identities and cultures lose their complexities and pluralistic qualities when they are projected to international audiences. That is why American movies in China tend to favor white actors and represent California culture. And that is why Americans sometimes think all the United Kingdom is like Downton Abbey.
For good or bad — but mostly bad — that is how cultural exchanges and diplomacy operate. But that international dynamic is infuriating now, in 2023, after American progressives have gaslighted their fellow citizens into thinking that American pride is shameful because those on the reactionary left have proven themselves incapable of understanding how national symbols and histories work.
In 2019, the same year that Nike canceled the Betsy Ross flag, pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong waved American flags to protest the Chinese government’s tightening authoritarian grip on the island.
These were not white supremacists parading the Stars and Stripes. They were ordinary people of different political backgrounds who understood that America is still the best promise of freedom and liberty.
But that promise is a false narrative, progressives have argued in recent years — and especially during the Kaepernick controversy.
So, then, why are American progressives today unquestioningly accepting the Ukrainian flag?
Perhaps the better question is this: If American progressives accept the Ukrainian flag for what it primarily symbolizes, why have they not accepted the American flag on the same terms?
There is an anti-intellectual disdain for homegrown pride among American progressives. They only want patriotism when it is imported like a foreign luxury good. No matter how much the rest of the world clamors for what we have, the Left cannot wholeheartedly embrace our national symbols and what they promise.
That’s fine. That’s the progressives’ problem. But do not gaslight the rest of us into buying your reactionary politics.
Zachary Marschall is editor-in-chief of Campus Reform. An assistant adjunct professor at the University of Kentucky, Zachary received his Ph.D. in cultural studies at George Mason University.
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