Maybe its only an illusion. Or maybe its because I live here in San Francisco, a continent away from my hometown. But in times of insecurity, television makes me feel solidarity with the rest of the country. Im reassured to be part of an enormous, cantankerous, TV-watching, extended family.
I like feeling patriotic.
The day after the attack on the World Trade Center, the governor of New York stood on CNN and asked us all to put up American flags.
I hoped everyone would, but I wondered about my friends and neighbors here in way-way liberal San Francisco.
I knew that across the country, folks in Columbia County would be hastily hoisting flags. I remembered the Gulf War at Evans High School; we were singing Im Proud To Be An American in choir before the first hour of fighting had elapsed.
But patriotism hasnt been popular in the San Francisco Bay Area, home of passionate protests and alternative culture. Most people arent exactly the flag-flying types.
See, if youre liberal, youre not supposed to be patriotic.
Now as a liberal myself, this is difficult logic for me to understand. I see no contradiction between being patriotic and being vocally critical of American policy, no matter what your views are. In fact, if you love something, you should ask it to live up to high standards.
Yet here in San Francisco, many still see the American flag as a hostile symbol of past conflicts: the banner of those who believed the Vietnam War was just, or who espouse right-wing values.
Shortly after the bombing, the nearby Berkeley Fire Department was asked to remove American flags from its trucks. Flying the flag, the city council announced, made the fire trucks a target for anti-war protestors, which was just too dangerous.
Watching this on the local news, I began shouting at the television set. Didnt they realize the flag was a simple way of expressing loyalty to a diverse nation? Cant the fire department recognize its fallen comrades?
If you have ethical problems with a military response to the attacks, by all means, you should protest. Its appropriate to debate these issues when emotions are high and lives are at stake. But why should flags be the target?
The decision was controversial, even in Berkeley, and the city council recanted the following day.
Its not comfortable for everyone. But this is a city confused by its own expressions of patriotism.
There are elements of the surreal: in the old Haight-Ashbury district, where the Summer of Love began, youll see an American flag in more than half of the shop windows. One vintage clothing store has a display of hip mannequins wearing red, white and blue wigs and platform shoes.
In San Franciscos gay neighborhood, the Castro, stores ran out of American flags so fast they started a waiting list of back orders.
The Richmond district - my neighborhood - is mostly populated by immigrants. Many of my neighbors only speak Cantonese, or Korean.
But nearly every window is flying an American flag. Some are colored by hand.
The day after the bombing, having watched 15 hours of continuous television, I walked up to the hardware store on the corner to attempt to buy a flag.
A group of burly men stood around a counter, silently watching news coverage themselves.
Do you have American flags here? I said doubtfully, looking around. It didnt seem like the right kind of hardware store.
A red-headed man looked up, seeing me for the first time. To my shock, he appeared to have been crying.
No, he said, quietly, but wow, I wish I could find one for you.
He told me his best friend, his college roommate, had been on the San Francisco-bound plane that had crashed in Pennsylvania.
That very afternoon, he was supposed to pick up his friends children at school, and stay with his widow while she broke the news to them.
You dont know how much it means today, he said, simply, to have you come in here and ask to buy a flag.
I felt sheepish. After all, Id only been doing what the governor of New York had asked everyone to do on television.
But how easy to imagine why he was so comforted. Why a complete strangers request felt like a familial gesture.
It is immeasurably powerful to know that although a democracy spread over a continent must agree to disagree, at this moment, at least, we are almost of one mind.
(Katy E. Shrout, a 1994 graduate of Evans High School, is a freelance writer and educator in San Francisco.)
The Columbia County News-Times ©2013. All Rights Reserved.