For the past few months, my neighbor has been flying the Maine state flag. Not the official one with the state seal but the other one: the buff background with a pine tree and a shining North Star, designed in 1901.
Why, I wondered, does Maine have two state flags, one official, the other a nostalgic renegade? Remembering that in 2016, one of our two congressional districts went for Hillary Clinton, the other for Donald Trump, I wondered: Was this one more symbol of the way the country — and the state — has been divided neatly in half by our president, a man whose most lasting contribution to the country’s history may turn out to be his genius for getting us all to hate one another?
To learn more, I did what anybody would do in this situation. I called my local vexillologist.
Which is — you knew this — someone who studies flags. Dave Martucci, of Washington, Maine, is the past president of the North American Vexillological Association. “In the 18th and 19th centuries, the flag itself wasn’t as important as its use,” he told me. It was a pragmatic object, something that let you know from a distance whether an approaching ship — or a swiftly advancing army — was friend or foe.
Now to many people, the American flag is more symbol than instrument. But a symbol of what?
Depends on whom you ask. Last summer, Nike thought it would be patriotic to release a special edition of the Air Max 1 Quick Strike sneaker, featuring the 13-star “Betsy Ross” flag. But in short order, the company (thanks, at least in part, to an objection from Colin Kaepernick, the former N.F.L. quarterback) canceled the shoe; given that the flag has been adopted by far-right groups, to many Americans, it has become a symbol of oppression and racism.
Did Betsy Ross even sew the Betsy Ross flag? As a native Pennsylvanian, it pains me to write this, but we don’t really know. What we do know is that eight American presidents owned slaves while in office, including Thomas Jefferson, who, when he wrote that “all men are created equal,” was also probably thinking, Not really! Just kidding!
There have always been two Americas — the one we aspire to, a place of idealism and revolution and freedom. And then there’s the other America, the one we actually live in. The disconnect between those two ideas has rarely been clearer than in this tumultuous spring, with the country wracked by disease and economic ruin, and police violence and protests against systemic racism convulsing the nation from coast to coast.
So which of Maine’s two flags symbolizes our ideals, and which the reality?
Hard to say. The official one is Union blue with a state seal containing a farmer, a sailor, a pine tree, the North Star, the name of the state on a blue banner, an anchor, a scythe, a few white clouds in a blue sky, the Latin motto of the state (“Dirigo,” meaning “I lead”) and a moose relaxing in a grassy meadow. It’s very busy.
To Mr. Martucci, “busy” is about the worst thing you can say about a flag. “We call that an S.O.B.,” Mr. Martucci said dismissively. “A seal on a bedsheet.”
The other flag, unofficial but increasingly beloved, is the 1901 flag, with the pine tree and the star. That’s the one my neighbor flies. It had been the state flag until the newer one was adopted in 1909.
It is not busy. “That was a beautiful flag,” Mr. Martucci said wistfully.
Last spring saw efforts to make the 1901 flag the official one again. There was support for the change in the legislature and in the Adjutant General’s Office too (which oversees Maine’s National Guard). Then, at the last minute, a logo version of the flag was unexpectedly adopted by — what’s this? — a conservative candidate running for Congress in Maine’s Second District.
“That really ticked some people off,” Mr. Martucci said.
Something similar happened a decade ago to the “Gadsden flag,” the banner with a snake and the motto “Don’t Tread on Me.” Once it was a wonderful symbol of all-around cussedness and courage. Then it was belatedly claimed as the emblem of the Tea Party movement, and the Americans whom you were apparently not supposed to tread upon were only those championed by Sarah Palin. She, in considering the ride of Paul Revere, once said, “He who warned the British that they weren’t going to be taking away our arms by ringing those bells, and making sure as he’s riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that we were going to be sure and we were going to be free, and we were going to be armed.”
But I digress.
In the end, a committee recommended that instead of becoming the state emblem, the 1901 flag could be used to celebrate the Maine Bicentennial in 2020. (Alas, the secretary of state eventually chose yet another flag to celebrate the occasion, one of his own design.)
You remembered that this was the year of Maine’s bicentennial, didn’t you? Because of the Missouri Compromise of 1820? Of course you did.
“I had such plans for the Maine bicentennial,” Mr. Martucci said. “And then this virus thing happened.”
Actually, a lot of things happened to change our plans in 2020, and in the end, the coronavirus may not even be the worst. It’s only June.
This Sunday, Flag Day, is also Donald Trump’s 74th birthday. Of the many sad images history is likely to remember of the Trump years, there may be nothing sadder than the one of the president embracing an American flag last year at the Conservative Political Action Conference, as if by literally wrapping himself in the flag he thought he could prove how much he loves it. But with his every tweet, Mr. Trump makes clear he loves the flag itself more than the values of the country it stands for.
Mr. Martucci told me that flags are not just symbols of a country or a state; their meaning lies in the consciousness of the person looking at them. Whether a flag evokes our most idealized sense of history or the harshness of our present reality probably says more about who we are than it does about the flag itself.
When you wave the flag, the flag is also waving you.
Jennifer Finney Boylan, a contributing Opinion writer, is a professor of English at Barnard College. Her most recent book is “Good Boy: My Life in Seven Dogs.” Her Op-Eds publish on alternate Wednesdays. You can follow her on Twitter: @JennyBoylan.
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Source: NY times