Review: An All-American Fascination with Our Flag

Paul Gregory Alms from PopMatters recently reviewed Arnaldo Testi’s Capture the Flag: The Stars and Stripes in American History— read the full review here:

The stars and stripes signify a national flag that changes and grows along with the country itself. The number of stars are tied to the number of states in the Union. As the Unites States acquired more states, so too the flag its stars.

Besides being a territorial and national marker, Testi makes clear that the flag is a kind of national, secular sacrament, a quasi religious, tangible object demanding faith, worship and sacrifice around which a disparate community seeks to find unity. There are ceremonies and creeds and holy days and rubrics that have clustered around the “sacred emblem”. The historical roots to these observances show that of course America was not born with an intact flag cult. It developed over time.

To read more of Testi’s writing on American history and nationalism, check out his other NYUP blog articles:

What is the Flag?

In this original blog post, Arnaldo Testi, author of Capture the Flag: The Stars and Stripes in American History, discusses four very different encounters with the Stars and Stripes.

In a recent visit to New York, I was struck again by the presence of the Stars and Stripes in the public arena. And I do not mean the ceremonial flag hoisted on public buildings or commercial venues (that’s a matter of routine), but the political flag waved to make a variety of political statements, including militant ones, often at odds with each other.


The first encounter was of historical nature. A New-York Historical Society exhibition on “Lincoln and New York” (now over) was, not surprisingly, replete with Civil-War era red, white, and blue memorabilia: party posters, recruitment ads, Emancipation Proclamation reproductions, prints and photographs of patriotic parades and marching militias, real textile flags.

Among them were a couple of beautiful stereoscopic views of a large crowd in April 1861. It was one of the first popular demonstrations (of emotion, grief, and anger) centered around a flag fetish: the flag of Fort Sumter, which had just escaped the Southern cannons and was now raised over the statue of George Washington in Union Square.

The Civil War is indeed at the origin of the sacralization of the national flag, of its rhetorical transformation from an official instrument for designating territory and authority into an object of people’s veneration. This veneration is assumed to be so deeply ingrained that it should inspire citizens to shed their blood in battle, while following or defending the colors.

And yet, as the exhibit showed, at the time of its sacralization the Stars and Stripes had turned into a partisan political symbol, the symbol of the North and the Union party. In the name of the country’s common revolutionary heritage, it had become a battle flag for change – to change things which were part and parcel of that heritage, states’ rights and slavery, and to build a new nation.
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Favorite Poem: Arnaldo Testi

Don’t ask me for words
by Eugenio Montale
(Genoa, 1896 – Milan, 1981; Nobel Prize for Literature, 1975)

Don’t ask me for words that might define
our formless soul, publish it
in letters of fire, and set it shining,
lost crocus in a dusty field.

Ah, that man so confidently striding,
friend to others and himself, careless
that the dog day’s sun might stamp
his shadow on a crumbling wall!

Don’t ask me for formulas to open worlds
for you: all I have are gnarled syllables,

branch-dry. All I can tell you now is this:

what we are not, what we do not want.

[Selected by Arnaldo Testi, author of Capture the Flag: The Stars and Stripes in American History. Poem from Cuttlefish Bones, 1920-1927, trans. by William Arrowsmith, W. W. Norton, New York, 1994, p. 41.]

Does Manifest Destiny Apply to the Moon?

An article by Arnaldo Testi, author of the forthcoming Capture the Flag: The Stars and Stripes in American History.

When, on July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 astronauts Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Neil Armstrong raised the Stars and Stripes on the lunar surface, the message was clear: a message of success and national pride sent to the whole world. And yet, behind that flag raising, there were also concerns and controversies. The colors of the U.S. flag had already been in space, they adorned missiles, satellites, astronauts’ coveralls. Planting a real flag on the moon was, however, another matter, which had much stronger symbolic meanings and historical implications.

The Apollo project, of course, was a grand gesture of Cold War, an episode of the competition with the Soviet Union. We are entering the space age, president Kennedy said in 1962, and “we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace.” Kennedy’s reference to a hostile flag was not metaphorical. In 1959, the Soviet probe Lunik 2 had struck the moon surface, taking with it the banner of the USSR. The U.S. government became nervous, and it hastened to clarify that it was not enough to “stick a Red flag in the ground” to advance claims on the moon. The nervousness became irritation when Nikita Khrushchev arrived in Washington on an official visit bringing as a gift to President Eisenhower a replica of that banner, and announcing with mischievous magnanimity:

“We entertain no doubt that the splendid scientists, engineers, and workers of the United States of America […] will also carry their flag to the moon. The Soviet flag, as an old resident of the moon, will welcome your pennant and they will live there together in peace and friendship as we both should live together on the earth in peace and friendship.”
On the eve of the Apollo 11 mission, the Soviets did it again. In May 1969, they landed two capsules on Venus containing a medallion with the emblem of the USSR and a bas-relief portrait of Lenin. Playing the game of symbolic national politics seemed a necessity for everyone, the natural thing to do–and now it was the turn of the United States. In fact, had this not always been the case? “It’s a characteristic of previous explorations, to plant a symbol upon arriving at a new shore,” Buzz Aldrin recalled later. “I certainly felt that the American flag is what belonged there.” But it was precisely this allusion to historical precedents that worried some people.

In the 1950s, the comparison between space exploration and the geographical exploration conducted in the past by European colonial powers had been discussed by legal experts. Outer space did not come under the sovereignty of any known—that is, earthly—state; it was considered open to discovery and conquest, perhaps by means of the old criteria of territorial appropriation and the old rituals (indeed, by planting a banner). This “colonial” paradigm was finally rejected by the U.N.-sponsored Outer Space Treaty of 1967, an agreement on the peaceful exploration and nonacquisitive use of space. Taking one’s own flag to the moon could no longer, in any way, mean claiming sovereignty over it.

And yet the colonial paradigm persisted in American public discourse. Continue reading