In Defense of Poetry

The Flag

By Michele Tolela Myers
President, Sarah Lawrence College

I am as patriotic as the next person. Perhaps a tad more because I chose to come to this country. I was not born here, and I have been profoundly proud of my American citizenship ever since it was granted in 1976. In 1964 when I arrived in New York as a 23 year-old French Sephardic Jew, Morocco-born, raised and educated in Paris, America stood for me as a beacon of opportunity, liberty and justice. It was a country where all were equal under the law; a country where silence was not the general response to prejudice, hatred and bigotry; a country where civil liberties, free expression and the right to dissent were part of the cultural fabric; a country where democratic values were meant to actually affect the way we all live: free from the fear of a knock on the door in the middle of the night, of being detained and incarcerated on arbitrary grounds, of being snatched away from one's children and perhaps never seeing them again, of being the victim of institutionally-sanctioned physical violence.

That was what the American flag meant to me, and still means to me. When "The Star-Spangled Banner" plays, I get goose bumps, tears in my eyes. I think of those eighteen and nineteen year-old soldiers, children still, cold and terrified in the landing crafts that took them to their deaths on the beaches of Normandy so my country could be free and so that this Jew could live. I have seen the cemeteries there, simple graves with white crosses and small flags. Heroes to be honored, a flag to fly proudly.

But I won't feel the same way about the flag if it comes to mean something else. If under the guise of unity, patriotism and national security we begin to profile those whose skin color or physical features identify them as Arabs, or Muslims, or Middle Easterners, so that anyone from these groups can be detained, even incarcerated, solely on the grounds of physical appearance. Three men who appeared to be Arab-Americans were recently denied access to a plane because they made their fellow travelers uncomfortable. It is the fellow travelers' reaction that makes me not just uncomfortable, but downright scared. And in fact, the official policies of our government condoned such reactions and such scapegoating. We remember the tragic example of Japanese internment camps.

If, in the name of national security, we allow our enforcement agencies to take liberties with our civil rights, if we play on our fears to unite us - rather than on our compassion for those much worse off than we are - then I fear the flag will stand for something I do not like. It is in crises like the one we are living through that we test our mettle, our values, ourselves. My hope is that we will work together to rebuild an even better America where we will not take for granted our liberties and privileges, where we will learn more about the rest of the world and the plight of those who have so little that extremism flourishes and ensnares those who feel they have nothing to lose, and that we will work with the rest of the international community to create more justice in the world, not more war, and thus give peace a chance.

Unity under the flag, yes. Not out of fear, but out of faith in a system that promises justice for all.