Photo of US flag sparks controversy. How are American views of patriotism changing?

Debate over a photo showing a baby wrapped in an American flag once more highlights the shifting views of patriotism among Americans. 

A photo of an infant wrapped in an American flag has sparked a mix of criticism, derision, and praise online.

Taken as part of a military family’s photo shoot for their newborn, the image features the father, dressed in his military uniform, holding the flag that cradles his child, ABC News reported.

On the one hand, commenters have called the image a desecration, Virginia Beach photographer Vanessa Hicks, a former Navy woman and the wife of an active-duty serviceman, wrote on her Facebook page. Others, in a show of support, have said the picture reflects the devotion behind military service.

The exchange once more highlights Americans’ shifting views of patriotism as the forces of politics and globalization divide opinions, partly along generational lines.

Plenty of studies have found that, based on traditional benchmarks for patriotism, Millennials are less patriotic than previous generations. The Pew Research Center has called it “a generational gap in American patriotism,” with only 15 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds today saying that the United States is the greatest country in the world.

That’s compared to about half of 30- to 64-year-olds and a fraction of those 65 and up.

At the same time, fewer Millennials feel that they are patriotic, or feel inspired by the sight of the American flag, according to a report by the American National Election Study.

“Today’s youngest generation begins adulthood with much lower levels of fondness for the symbols of America, and if the past is a guide, there is no reason to expect increases as they age,” Lynn Vavreck wrote for The New York Times.

It may be worth noting, however, that in the case of Ms. Hicks's photo, commenters appeared to be of a variety of ages – grandmothers and retired Navy chiefs agreed with young moms and 20-somethings on the virtues of the photo. (The negative comments had been deleted by the time this article was written, but presumably, not everyone who had a low opinion of the photo was above a certain age.)

Which shows that the same symbols and images can be interpreted in different ways by different people. Another way of looking at it, according to a report by MTV’s research division, is that patriotism may not be declining so much as changing in the way it’s perceived.

The report, released in 2014, found that young Americans didn’t necessarily find love for country and criticism of its shortcomings to be mutually exclusive.

“Overall, the generation's new perspective is best illustrated through the contradictions of responses advocating for long-standing American values alongside critiques of America's perceived shortcomings,” according to the report.

For instance, more than 80 percent of respondents said America is still the “land of opportunity,” but nearly half also felt that the country’s current system has let them down. Almost 90 percent of respondents also said that advocating for equality and fairness is an “American” value, yet almost 70 percent saw bias for the college-educated and the rich.

"Millennials are as loyal to America as any generation,” Stephen Friedman, president of MTV, said in a statement. “But they are redefining patriotism as an active commitment, rather than an unquestioned obligation.”

Hicks, for her part, seems to agree. On her Facebook page, she wrote: “I didn’t ask for any of this. I just took a picture.”

“But,” she added, “I stood up for the picture. To me, that is what being an American is about.”

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