To Be an American

I know that the 4th of July was days and days ago, but sometimes it takes a while for ideas to filter through my big head. We asked the students to blog about what it means to be an American, reflecting on our Independence Day when Thomas Jefferson and his buddies declared war on the greatest country the world had ever seen: Great Britain. Since 1776, many of the other colonies of Great Britain have followed our lead, with greater and lesser success, to find their independence from this once-great empire.

One of the things that has struck me fully since being in Northern Ireland was something that our tour guide said when we were walking around Armagh: it is illegal to hang the flag of the Republic of Ireland in Northern Ireland. That stopped me in my tracks. I do understand the impact of symbols, but, it seemed to me that making such a thing illegal would have the reverse effect of what was intended.

Since our walking tour, I can’t get that idea out of my mind. It’s illegal to fly the flag of the Republic of Ireland here. Can you imagine the kerfuffle if that were the case in the States? That would mean it would be illegal to fly the flag of the Confederacy, the losers of our Civil War. I can’t stand that flag. It represents abhorrent things to me like slavery, the civil war, and division, but I can’t imagine banning it.

We are entering an especially divisive period of time in the States as the presidential election looms ahead of us. The yelling has begun (has it stopped?) to ban the practice of certain religions, to block entry to certain people into this country, to legislate what I can and can’t do with my body or my life, to legislate who my friends can marry. And, they can say all of these things that I vehemently disagree with because of that Declaration that Thomas Jefferson wrote. And, that other one that James Madison and John Adams put together: the Constitution.

So, let’s argue, debate, harangue and accuse each other of not understanding the “founding fathers” or the Constitution or the laws of the States. Let’s hang flags of the Confederacy or Wicca or even the Nazis; knock yourself out. You can because that’s what freedom of speech is all about and that is uniquely American.

UPDATE: This country is full of contradictions. In further researching the legality of flying the Republic’s flags, I’ve discovered that this is another way of understanding the loyalties of the speaker. If it is illegal to fly the flag (and I’m not sure one way or the other), then the law is not enforced. By telling us that it is illegal, our tour guide was really telling us that she is a loyalist, someone who wants Northern Ireland to be part of Great Britain.

I’ve learned that very few people come out and say one way or the other if they are Republicans (those who want a united, independent Ireland) or Unionists (those who want Northern Ireland to be part of Great Britain). One has to pick up clues from surnames, addresses (the country is quite segregated between Catholics and Protestants) and throug “code” in their language. Attitudes toward the flag of the Republic of Ireland is one of those clues. Fascinating and baffling country, this.