Retorts: What’s behind the flag flap?

THE FLAG of the United States of America. Does it symbolize just the nation, or also the freedoms we enjoy here? (Flickr photo).

What’s the old saying? Don’t criticize a man until you’ve walked a mile in his Skechers? The little bit of wisdom applies this week as the Garden Grove City Council approved on Tuesday night a resolution regarding the display of flags of Vietnam on city property.

The resolution is innocuous on its face. It merely restates a 2003 resolution that would have the city display only the flag of the former Republic of [South] Vietnam rather than that of the communist Socialist Republic of Vietnam when any banner of that country is posted on city property.

Only Councilman Kris Beard voted against the resolution, which was championed by council members Phat Bui and Thu-Ha Nguyen. Several people during the public comments portion of the meeting spoke against the measure.

Since the resolution was only “symbolic,” as Bui said Tuesday night, what exactly was the point? Bui went on to cite recent incidents in which people wore clothing bearing the flag of the Communist regime while in stores and eateries in the Little Saigon area of Garden Grove. That was a “distraction” to the Vietnamese community, many of whom fled their country after the Communists conquered the south in April 1975.

Bui and Nguyen went on to remind the council of the public safety efforts and costs involved in Westminster in 1999 in which a merchant displayed not only the SRV flag but also an image of Ho Chi Minh, the leader of communist North Vietnam during the war.

The protests attracted thousands of people and lasted for nearly two months. The inference was that this resolution might head off such a costly confrontation.

But the resolution does not – and could not – affect the actions of a private individual. If some nimrod wants to walk up and down Brookhurst Street dressed like Ho – heedless of how insulting and insensitive that would be – that’s his or her right. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gives people the right to express themselves with very few restrictions. That’s what makes this the Land of the Free. As the U.S. Army motto says, “This we’ll defend.”

Beard said he opposed the resolution because he doesn’t want to see any national flags – other than that of the United States – displayed on city property. I think some non-Vietnamese Americans worry that people who display the banner of a place they left decades ago might have divided loyalties.

Flags, obviously, are important symbols, especially to people who have had experiences in which life and limb were at stake. People forced to flee their native land for fear of oppression or worse certainly can be expected to have a strong emotional attachment to the flag of the country they left.

This is not without precedent. Travel back east to Boston or New York and find neighborhoods where the streets are decorated with displays of the flags of Ireland or Italy alongside Old Glory. Old attachments linger for generations, even centuries.

I know that, for example, if I had to leave the U.S.A. and was forced to live in, say, France, I would probably not put on a beret and sit smoking at a sidewalk café and eating baguettes. More likely, I would seek out the nearest Burger King or Pizza Hut and use my iPad to check baseball scores. I might fly the American flag from my home.

On the other hand, I would not propose to tell my Gallic hosts what sort of T-shirts they could wear. That’s a step too far.

So, in thinking about the whole issue of the flag resolution and the ideas behind it, here’s another old saying to reflect on. Your right to swing your fist stops where my nose begins. Express your opinions any way you choose to, but don’t expect others to stifle theirs. 

Jim Tortolano’s Retorts appears each Wednesday, usually.


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