Yet the American flag is so visceral partly because the symbol is so contested. The flag contains paradoxes: sworn and torn, pledged and deplored, burned and raised, the flag of Norman Rockwell and David Hammons, of civil-rights marches and Ku Klux Klan rallies, of loyalty and opposition, and avowed patriotism nonetheless. If the American flag is “a living thing,” as the U.S. Flag Code insists, then it has come to personify all the contradictions of American life.
Into this disputed territory, foreign-made flags have staked their own claim: They, too, are signs of contradiction, yet they are authentic nevertheless. Since the image of the American flag is in the public domain, anyone can use it. But for those who see the American flag as semisacred, importing flags is tantamount to sacrilege. Resolutions from Congress and the American Legion denounce it. How could a symbol that so personally embodies “America” be born in another country? And yet, as a representation of a country of immigrants, how could it not?
On one Fourth of July holiday, the ABC local news anchor Len Stevens, now a communications director at Liberty University, saluted his Virginian viewers. “Okay, patriots, a question for you now. Is your American flag born in the U.S.A. ... or made in China?” To find out, Shelley Basinger, a news reporter, visited a local flag shop, whose owner acknowledged that many consumers buy less expensive, imported flags. Incredulous, the reporter interviewed flag owners to see whether they owned “foreign Stars and Stripes.” One man was relieved to find out that his flag was not made in China “because so many things are.” A woman was also pleased to know that her flag, according to the reporter, “passed the test.” But another flag waver contritely insisted she “had no idea” hers was made in China. “If you’re willing to spend a little more for the real deal,” the reporter advised her viewers, “take the time to make sure it is.”
This is the populist, at times patronizing, rhetoric of a country unsettled by economic anxieties about China. Bipartisan bills that seek to ban American flag imports have been matched by criticisms spanning the political spectrum.
“The flags we wave should not come from a country that has institutionalized slavery,” opined the WND conservative political commentator Jane Chastain, seemingly unaware of how that criterion would disqualify America itself.
Her sentiments, made a month after 9/11, were echoed a few months later in the progressive publication Salon: “The American flag stands for, among other things, workplace liberty and decent pay for an honest day’s work. Americans who buy flags made in China are saying that the promises of justice and equality underlying the Stars and Stripes are empty promises.”
Later, The New Yorker offered its own satirical take. On its Fourth of July cover one year, a puckish rendition of Maoist-style propaganda appeared. It featured rows of Chinese proletarians resolutely gazing toward a future communist utopia—and sewing the American flag.