The Demography of Patriotism

by Margaret Magnus


Margo's Magical Letter Page


In October 2001, I visited New York City and saw Ground Zero. I was one of the last people to see it from the street. The New York police were in the process of erecting plywood walls to block the view. When I asked one of them why they thought this was necessary, since you couldn't get in anyway, they said it was out of respect. I protested that nobody there lacked respect -- indeed a strange sort of silence loomed over the place -- and a peculiar smell of burnt plastic for incense, but I knew what I said would have no effect.

I noticed for the first time that New York really is a country to itself. As you enter it, you feel a different energy; a different culture. There's a sort of super-mind enveloping the city that makes it a self-contained entity insulated from the rest of the US in much the way the US is self-contained and insulated from Mexico or Italy. The concerns of its people are much more aware of what happens within this 'country' than outside it. As an American citizen, I can travel to New York without being asked for a passport or having to exchange currency. Maybe this is what the countries of the future will be like... not demanding a passport to keep people out, but just maintaining a unique culture by virtue of some other mysterious force.

I was visiting New York from the state of New Hampshire. By September 13, flags had literally sprouted out of the houses and businesses in Southern New Hampshire. Every business had changed its advertizing board to something concerning the bombing. Most of them said, "God bless America", but many of them got more philosophical. I made notes of some of the signs I saw around town at the time... in order of frequency:

1. God bless America
2. United we Stand
4. Never forget our fallen heroes
3. I love America
5. Peace on earth
6. Our heart goes out to the victims of Sep. 11
7. Peace on earth, goodwill toward men
8. Proud to be American
9. We will prevail.
10. Crown thy good with brotherhood.

Others which I saw only once:

United we kneel (outside a church)
America keep love and compassion in your hearts
Peace to all mankind
Now is not the time for pacifism: we must defend freedom throughout the world
America will prevail
Don't let terrorism lead to racism
Our condolences to the victims
If you want peace, you must demonstrate courage.
Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.
We are coming. God may forgive you, but we will not.
If you want peace, work for justice
Terrorist BINGO - B52, M16,...
Stand together. We will prevail.
America is only as great as she is true to her ideals
Let us keep compassion in our hearts
The perfect revenge - send the Afghan women to American universities
Ben Ladin does not represent Islam
America is not a country, it is an idea
God grant us wisdom and compassion
Justice, not revenge
May God turn our grief to resolve and compassion
We will not forget

It struck me that although it was New York that was attacked, I didn't see the flags sprouting out of windows there. I didn't see all the red, white and blue bumper stickers on the cars... That doesn't mean the city wasn't in shock. It most certainly was. Conversations about 'it' were studiously avoided for the first half hour at the party, but eventually talk inevitably turned to 'it'.

To some extent, I believe this is in part simply New York style. New York - and big cities in general - have never been as much into flag waving as rural places, it seems to me. But I think it also has to do with the fact that New York was hit at the core. If you are a Jewish family or a black family, one of whose members has just been lynched because of your race, you are not so likely to put a Star of David or a Black Power sign on your door. You hurt too much for that. However, your fellow Jews or blacks may very well put something up on their house, both as a gesture of moral support, and as an expression of the fact that although they weren't attacked directly, they too were attacked psychologically. And if you are not Jewish or black, you have several choices how to react. And you see all of these responses both within the US and outside it...

But I figure that the forces involved are of mythological proportions, and how it goes down will depend on powers outside the control of any one person or even any one nation.

I've been thinking to do a demographic study of flag waving ever since, but I haven't gotten around to it until now. Here are a few statistics which I find interesting for no reason I can quite articulate:

February 11- February 19, 2002

American Flags on Cars
Total cars seen from behind - 1496
Total cars displaying American flags - 577 = 39%
Cars on highways displaying American flags - 143/424 = 34%
Cars in upper (middle) class towns displaying flags - 98/517 = 19%
Cars in middle class towns displaying flags - 336/555 = 61%

Slogans Appearing on Cars
God bless America - 92
I love America - 63
United we Stand - 45
Never Forget our Fallen Heroes - 42
Peace on Earth - 32
Justice not Revenge - 12
No More Victims... Anywhere - 8

American Flags on Houses
Total houses counted - 892
Total houses displaying American flags - 391 = 44%
Houses in upper class neighborhoods displaying flags - 2/36 = 6%
Upper middle class houses displaying flags - 160/486 = 33%
Lower middle class houses displaying flags - 229/370 = 72%

Other flags seen on houses and cars - Italian, British, Swedish, German, Israeli, Greek, South African, Polish, Mexican

Prior to Sep. 11, I didn't take statistics, but I doubt if more than 5% of houses or cars displayed American flags apart from on the Fourth of July.

I find it interesting that the first generation educated immigrants I know seem for the most part more approving of military action and more defensive than educated people who were born here. This holds more of South American, Asian and Eastern European immigrants than of Western European and non-Jewish Middle Eastern immigrants. Perhaps they feel they have to prove that they're really American. But it seems to me there's more to it than that.

There's another fact that strikes me as interesting. I was an enumerator for the 2000 census, so it happens that I physically stopped by at many of these houses asking them to fill out the census form. I was regarded with suspicion and even shooed away on several occasions. But this never happened at an upper middle class or an upper class house, where I was always treated at least with a show of politeness and often with genuine warmth. When I was sent packing, it was always from working class houses or from farm houses. I find it interesting that it is exactly this group of people who waves the flag highest. In particular, I recall a neighborhood in which I was shooed away from nearly every house once even with a threat of violence. On one door, I didn't even bother to ring, because there was a sign that said, "The residents of this house are armed and willing to shoot. Whatever it is you want, it can't be worth your life, so go away." I thought, "Okay....." But in this very neighborhood the flag was flying from every single house that had shooed me away.

I saw one bumper sticker that one is tempted to think sums it up: 'I love my country - it's govenment I'm afraid of'. But that wouldn't explain why they seem to support military action, which, after all, is carried out by the US government in a big way... They like government as long as its muscle is directed outside... Government by its nature is apparently conceived of as being rooted in an us-vs.-them psychology... It exists to protect us from them, and when it isn't doing that, it should do as little as possible. I can't be completely certain of this, but it's my sense that there is a higher percentage of Republicans among flag-wavers than Democrats. I tend therefore to think that the Republican/Democrat division is no longer so much along labor lines as it was in the beginning of the 20th Century.

I'm tempted to go on interpreting all this, but I'll refrain... you figure it out for yourself.

Just for the record, I happen myself to fall in the upper middle class as I have defined it, and to be one of those who does not own or intend to buy a flag for either my car or my house. There's something about flags that bothers me... something a little too frighteningly black-and-white, something a little too convinced that it has all the answers, or that will at least defend the answers it has. But I confess that when the flags sprouted after September 11, I was moved. I too feel gratitude for what America had given me. I felt and still feel great concern for what the government might do... I don't like it doing things in my name that I don't approve of and have no control over. But at the time of the attack I felt judged by the entire world - and to some extent still feel judged, as stupid, superficial, and above all, morally inferior... in short, as American. So one finds oneself in these moments feeling misunderstood, drawing close to one's fellow countrymen for comfort and understanding. Hence the flags, I think.