The flag was still there: How Flag Day is changing

Are the meaning and expression of 'patriotism' changing for younger generations in the US?

Scott Mason/The Winchester Star/AP
Members of Boy Scout Troop 63 salute during a ceremony to retire worn and tattered American flags Saturday, June 11, 2016 in Winchester, Va. The ceremony is to commemorate Flag Day, which is June 14.

June 14 is Flag Day, and the American flag is not what it used to be. 

Stars have come and gone while stripes have grown and shrunk in number to reflect both new geography and developments in the textile industry. Although its design has now become stable, the flag's significance in the minds of Americans continues to shift in ways both celebrated and lamented. 

Flag Day began informally during the Civil War, when the Stars and Stripes evolved from a military marker to a gesture of American union. The holiday was officially adopted in 1916, when Americans again found themselves in need of a unifying symbol amid conflict.

"In 1916 it was widely adopted on the eve of World War I, when there was a lot of concern about socialism and anarchism and immigration," Adam Goodheart, the author "1861: The Civil War Awakening" told Time magazine. "It was a moment of hyper-patriotism in America, just as 1861 had been.”

Not all eras yield such "hyper-patriotism." In 2015, the student government of the University of California at Irvine voted to ban all flags, including Old Glory, as symbols of patriotism or nationalism "flown in instances of colonialism and imperialism." The university quickly overturned the ban, which inspired nationwide outrage and a proposal from the state legislature to keep the US flag flying on California campuses. The Christian Science Monitor's Mark Sappenfield wrote:

On one hand, the now-vetoed decision to ban the American flag had the feel of student government run amok, as budding iconoclasts tried to make a statement about the moral complexities they're learning in History 101....

Yet the move, short-lived though it was, speaks to more than an only-in-California spasm of 20-something intellectual angst. More broadly, it points to a generational shift in the notion of what patriotism is. 

Pew Research Center found a "generational gap" in American expressions of patriotism in a 2011 study. The rising generation of Millennials – known for their mistrust of the nation's churches, institutions, and economy – express reservations about its symbols as well. Older Americans fly the nation's flag most frequently, with members of younger generations wanting to hang, wave, or wear the American flag less regularly than their parents and grandparents. 

Some of this is explained by politics. The years following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, saw an explosion of flag-waving, with 75 percent of Americans displaying Old Glory in a show of patriotism. That declined slowly over the next several years.

Younger Americans express ambivalence about more than just the flag. Although 48 percent of Americans overall said the United States is the greatest country in the world, only 32 percent of Millennials agreed. The Pew study showed a generational shift, with the most patriotic generation being the oldest, "Silent" generation at 64 percent. 

The shift has led some Americans to wonder if the flag will become a symbol of nostalgia rather than national unity. 

Author Eric Metaxas recounted in a Wall Street Journal editorial the memory of a Flag Day gone by, when his fifth-grade teacher led the class to the flagpole for a celebration that included "My Country, ’Tis of Thee," and "Taps" played on the trumpet. In 1973, he wrote, such celebrations were fading from the scene in a time of political unrest over the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal.

"We 11- and 12-year-olds understood that what we were doing was somehow important, and that this flag we were celebrating was more than a red-white-and-blue banner," he wrote. "It was a sacred symbol that pointed toward something beyond itself, that pointed to the thing it represented – to America, the country we’d been learning about, the nation 'born in liberty' and 'dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.'"

Stories still surface to suggest that the flag remains a force in many young lives. In May, an Ohio teenager made headlines when he spotted a US flag dragging on the ground, the Monitor reported. The teen called on family tradition and training as a Boy Scout and rushed to hold it up until the flagpole could be fixed.

"I didn't intend to get recognized for what I did," the 16-year-old wrote in a Facebook post that has since been taken down. "But I am sure glad to see the support and respect for the flag."

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