By Rep. Joe Hohenstein
Our nation’s original 13-star flag has become the subject of controversy for two reasons: One, white supremacists have started using it because they want to tell a narrative of a nation, born out of liberty, that is restricting freedom and growing weak; and two, progressives and African-Americans have pointed out that the original flag was born out of a society reliant on the enslavement and dehumanization of people who had none of the inalienable rights espoused in the flowery language of the white men in charge of the birth of the nation.
The central theme is that each group has their own particular vision of a perfect society: for one, perfection has been lost, and for the other, it never existed.
To be clear, in the historical narrative, I fall squarely on the side that recognizes the sin of slavery as a stain on the soul of our nation, and that we still must work to wipe that particular slate clean.
However, I refuse to allow the symbol of our nation’s first flag to be co-opted or hijacked for any current political or ideological purpose. It has a place in history that must be taught. That history is that the flag attributed to Betsy Ross (nee Griscom) is the product of its time. It does not represent a white man’s paradise or utopia. Rather, it was a step forward in the arc of human progress. We are still on that arc, and we have far to go. We do a disservice to our forebears if we either glorify or demonize them. The proper approach is to recognize our founders as people operating within an imperfect time, leading imperfect lives, but who, for a brief, shining moment, were able to articulate a greater truth of equality and inalienable human rights for all.
Our task should be to express gratitude that they brought us this far and to take up the cause of liberty and securing those rights for all people, while still recognizing our own imperfections. The arrogance that comes with a belief in an idyllic past that never existed, or pressing for an impossibly perfect vision of the future, gets us nowhere.
We cannot fight over a symbol like a flag, when the real work in the present day is to make the lives of everyone in our community better. We have an obligation to make the promise of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness a reality for all, not just a vision for some. This means lifting people up when they are down – providing social supports and working to end the twin scourges of poverty and racism – so that everyone has their basic needs met. It also means respecting the different perspectives to allow for expression of all ideas, even (and especially) the unpopular ones, because without social liberty and free speech, advocacy for basic needs will not lead to full freedom.
As an elected public official, serving at the grace of my fellow citizens, I strive to balance these principles every day. What I ask of my neighbors is to do the same in their lives and interactions with each other. ••
State Rep. Joe Hohenstein represents the 177th Legislative District.