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STAR-SPANGLED METAPHOR HAVE WE FORGOTTEN FLAG'S MEANING?

Byline: Gary M. Galles

JULY 4th weekend brings with it car sales, barbecues and fireworks displays. It also brings out America's flag.

But many flying that flag, if they were asked about what it means, would have little to say beyond ``my country.''

It was not always so. For many years after the Second Continental Congress authorized a new flag to symbolize America, drawing inspiration from its meaning was a major focus.

Perhaps the most inspiring view of what our flag stands for was given in an 1861 address by Henry Ward Beecher (brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe), described as ``the most respected and idealized religious figure of the day'' and ``America's leading moral and spiritual teacher'':

``If one asks me the meaning of our flag, I say to him: It means just what Concord and Lexington meant, what Bunker Hill meant. It means the whole glorious Revolutionary War, which was, in short, the rising up of a valiant young people against an old tyranny to establish the most momentous doctrine that the world has ever known: the right of men to their own selves and to their liberties. It means all that the Declaration of Independence meant. It means all that the Constitution of our people, organizing for justice, for liberty, and for happiness, meant.''

Unfortunately, many today do not see the same thing in our flag. Some, reflecting our cynical age, see anything valuable it might once have represented as having long since seeped away.

Others see it as a symbol of a system they wish to blame for their problems, frustrations and failures, rather than taking an honest look at themselves and their choices.

Still others, steeped in our politically correct culture, see nothing, for fear of any implication they might think one country or set of beliefs could be better than others.

Beecher would insist that all of these approaches were faulty:

``A thoughtful mind, when it sees a nation's flag, sees not the flag only, but the nation itself ... the principles, the truths, the history that belongs to the nation that sets it forth. ... The American flag is the symbol of liberty, and men rejoiced in it. Not another flag has had such an errand, carrying everywhere, the world around, such hope for freedom, such glorious tidings.''

Still some Americans tend to attack, rather than defend, our flag and what it represents, because they view many of those who have made up our government as failing to live up to America's ideals.

That is no doubt true, if unsurprising, in a government of men by men. But that in no way detracts from the ideals that created our country, and what has been called the first government on Earth to be founded on a good idea.

``Our flag carries American ideas, American history, and American feelings. ... It has gathered and stored chiefly this supreme idea: Divine Right of Liberty in man. Every color means liberty; every form of star and beam or stripe of light means liberty; not lawlessness, not license, but organized institutional liberty - liberty through law, and law for liberty.''

To the extent some Americans feel ambivalent about, if not hostile to, our flag and the country it represents because of our undeniably imperfect job of living up to our ideals, they are also misplacing their idealism and their efforts.

If they put their energy into active steps toward reclaiming our founding vision of providing as expansive a canvas for human freedom as possible, rather than just attacking those whose particular politics they don't like, each new Independence Day would be better than the last.

``This American Flag was the safeguard of liberty ... It was an ordinance of liberty by the people, for the people. That it meant, that it means, and, by the blessing of God, that it shall mean to the end of time!''

Henry Ward Beecher's vision of America, captured symbolically in our flag, is much closer to that of our founders than what anyone seems willing to admit to today. We need to catch that vision again, for we have gotten far from what he called our real ideal:

``... not that every man shall be on a level with every other man, but that every man shall have liberty to be what God made him, without hindrance.''

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Phil McCarten/Staff Photographer
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Title Annotation:Viewpoint
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jul 6, 2003
Words:732
Previous Article:TINSELTOWN SPYWITNESS.
Next Article:EDITORIAL MODEL OF INEFFICIENCY.


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