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Editorial: Fly the flag for what it means to you

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Carl “Gus” Porter III makes and sells American flags, so we thought he might know what people are thinking when they fly the flag.

Well, said Gus, it all depends. The flag means different things to different people. But the important thing, he said, is to fly the flag for what it means to you. Don’t let other people hold the flag captive to just one meaning.

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We gave Gus a call because we were thinking along those same lines. Like Gus, we wish more people flew the flag, especially on so perfect an American day as the Fourth of July. But the tradition has faded some, maybe because so many Americans today think flying the flag sends a single and narrow message: A kind of hawkish, jingoistic, America-love-it-or-leave-it message.

If so, that’s a mistake. The American flag is beautiful, a fluttering of red, white and blue. And it stands for so many pretty notions, such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion and the right of a people to govern themselves. Those were downright radical notions back when the first 13-star American flag was sewn, and they can’t be taken for granted even today.

Gus is the fourth-generation CEO of a family business, WGN Flag & Decorating on Chicago’s Southeast Side. Customers have been bending his ear about why they fly the American flag since he was four.

“When I see the flag flying, I feel an unimaginable sense of pride,” he told us. “It’s a very proud symbol, and the meaning behind every star and stripe should hold a place in every American’s heart.”

But pride in what? In gun violence? In stupid wars? It is not all good.

“There have been a lot of negative emotions lately with the presidential election, police misconduct and mass shooting,” Gus allowed. “Many people do feel that flying their flag makes them politically minded, supporting one candidate or another. This causes a great deal of people to avoid flying their flag for fear of what it might say about their political stance.”

Gus sees those patriotic ups and downs in the sale of flags.

“I saw this very prominently when George W. Bush was president and his approval ratings were down to about 30 percent,” Gus wrote to us in an email. “People thought that support of the flag was support of the leadership and the [Iraq] war.

“But just prior to this was 9/11, when we couldn’t even keep U.S. flags in stock long enough,” he wrote. “Everybody wanted to fly their flag. The solidarity was overwhelming.”

A 2014 poll conducted for right-wing Fox News, by the reputable pollsters of Anderson Robbins, showed that 94 percent of Americans consider flying the flag “an act of patriotism.” And a strong majority of Americans, according to other polls, say they are likely to fly the flag outside their home, on their car or at work. We’ll assume they don’t all work at a post office, where the flag always flies.

But Americans are not necessarily fooled by cheap exploitations of the flag, despite what politicians who always wear a flag pin might think. When asked by a pollster if politicians who don’t wear a flag pin are “less patriotic,” 79 percent of Americans said nope, it makes no difference.

We live in a time of rising nationalism, which has given us the likes of Brexit and Donald Trump. This is not great. It is easy at such times for the rest of us to shy away from flying the flag for fear that it signals support only for an exclusionary and intolerant brand of patriotism, the kind that calls for walls and stirs up religious animosities.

But Gus says that’s selling the flag short. In his note to us, he did not express any views on such matters as Brexit and nationalism — he was talking flags, not politics — but he said it is important to remember that the flag stands for so much more.

“So many of the best aspects of our country are forgotten or ignored, simply overshadowed by one negative ideal or another,” he wrote. “People forget that this flag awards them the right to even have a differing opinion than the norm or of those in charge. This flag awards them the right to think what they want, feel what they want, choose what they want.”

Nobody’s got a special claim on the American flag. And nobody should let that happen.

On this Fourth of July, we (and Gus) hope you’ll fly the flag — for what it means to you.

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