This morning, as I drove my son to day camp, his voice chirped from the seat behind me, "I wish we had a flag. Daddy, why don't we have an American flag?" I'd half-expected that question, after I'd seen his eyes fastened on the colorful banner flapping in our neighbor's front yard on Independence Day. A building contractor (and a nice guy), Dan erected a telescoping contraption that, when cranked to its full height, would do justice to a military base. The cloth dangling from it matched in scale. "Well," I answered. "We don't have an American flag because I'm not especially patriotic. I think the basic principles on which the country was founded were pretty good, but it's gone downhill since then. There's not enough freedom left to celebrate."
Tony is only seven, so I'm never entirely sure how much of what I say sticks and how much doesn't. But I decided long ago that I'd rather give him too much information than dumb it down. He'll digest it in his own time. In the run over to camp (swimming, a bit of paleontology [yeah, I screwed this up earlier], and Pizza Hut, today), I reiterated what I've told him before about fading civil liberties, lost economic freedom, out-of-control presidents, murderous foreign policy — and how it's not a complete loss, since there have been victories in terms of the treatment of gay people and rescinding some of the restrictions on the plants that people can smoke, among other things.* But, overall, I'm not pleased by the direction the country is moving.
I'm not a complete pessimist. I think freedom has a future, here and elsewhere. But that's a freedom based in individuals who want to be free and their association with like-minded people, abetted by liberating technology, such as encryption and decentralized manufacturing. Governments and countries don't especially enter into the equation, though it would be nice to have a reasonably welcoming refuge somewhere, and maybe a new one will arise in time for me to see it happen.
My attitude toward patriotism has always been pragmatic, based on a family history of shopping for convenient nationalities. One branch of my family has been Spanish, Italian, Argentine and American, that I know of, and in that order. All of those shifts in "allegiance" were deliberate (as opposed to the common European practice of staying at home and waiting for a new nation to come to you) as an old national identity lost its attraction and was substituted by a new one. Any given citizenship is good, so long as it works for you, so I tend not to tear up when I see a flag, well aware that my great-whatevers found one or another banner convenient until it wasn't.
That's a lot for Tony to process, right now. But he understands that both his mother and I consider governments to be generally bad things, and the one we have to be on an unfortunate path. We tell him that loyalty should be reserved for family, friends and people and groups you've chosen. He knows, in broad terms, why we feel that way.
"You can have a flag in your room," I told Tony. "But I don't want one over the house."
He's a smart kid. He can make his own decisions — he should make his own decisions if my hopes for him mean anything. This afternoon, he showed me a drawing he'd made. "It's a new world," he told me. "These are the clothes they wear, this is what this country looks like (showing me the borders) and this is their flag."
If only it were that easy.
Update: A recent Gallup poll finds that "71 percent [of respondents] say the signers of the Declaration of Independence would be disappointed in today's United States."
* Yes, I count the end of slavery and equality before the law for women, blacks and Native Americans as positive developments, but the conversation focused on the country's recent direction. As in, all of the beneficiaries of the aforementioned developments are getting surveilled and bossed around, just like the folks who look like the founders.