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The American Flag Is for Everybody

At the beginning of the second Iraq War, the local Lions Club in Rick’s hometown of Edmonds, Wash., put out the flags (as it traditionally does on Veterans’ Day, Memorial Day, Flag Day, Presidents’ Day, and so on). The intention was to leave them out “until the troops come home.” Rick, representing what he considered a loyal opposition to the war in his town, considered that an abuse of the flag and took them down (with Lions Club’s permission). This angered the gang with flags on their car antennas, and got Rick a featured spot on Seattle’s right-wing talk radio stations for several days. Here’s how the story of two opposing kinds of patriotism unfolded in the local papers:


Edmonds Beacon newspaper: Rick’s letter to the editor (April 14, 2003)

Dear Editor, A few weeks ago the Lions Club decided to drape Edmonds with flags (a thoughtful service it provides on national holidays) as a show of support for our troops. They planned to leave the flags out until all the troops were home. I explained to the president of the Lions Club that for many, the flags mean, “support our troops” and we all agree with that. But for others, the flag used this way at this time also symbolizes support of President Bush’s foreign policy. I was speaking for many business owners and citizens of Edmonds who consider this pro-war flag flying an abuse of our flag. He understood our feelings, checked with his fellow Lions, and agreed that the flags would be taken down. Last weekend, I helped the Lions put the flags away.

As a patriot and a good citizen, I am concerned that America is making a huge and long-term mistake in its foreign policy. We won the war but we are losing the world. At my church we learned those with a hammer as their primary tool are inclined to see every problem as a nail.

Flipping through the newspaper, I see so many social services (humane touches we could afford since I’ve been a kid) dying or in budget crises. Why? “Because there’s not enough money.” Any time someone tells me there’s no longer enough money for desperate single mothers, special-needs children, ailing seniors, health care for the poor, or arts programs, I say there’s as much money as ever...it’s our priorities that have changed. We decided, instead, to spend $350 billion a year on our military and an extra $80 billion or so for “regime change” in Iraq.

The other day I got an email from someone who no longer buys Mr. French’s Mustard. (Mr. French was an American. The company is English-owned.) Even though Edmonds’ Café de Paris has a Swiss-owned sign in its window, this person would never stoop to patronizing such a place. They said that they have enjoyed many wonderful European vacations (and saved piles of money) thanks to my guidebooks. But now that they hear I am “pro peace,” they’ll never again buy one of my books.

Later that day, I stood on 4th Avenue looking through waving American flags at my building, which has a “peace is patriotic” sign in the window. A man across the street asked, “Are you reconsidering your politics? Do you know how much business you’re losing because of your No War sign?” I said, “It’s probably very expensive.” Then I asked him if he figured it was right for someone to base their decision to support or not support a war based on the effect it would have on their income. Lately, I believe standing up to my government — at whatever cost to my business — is standing up for my country.

Good patriots can support President Bush. And good patriots can oppose him. Good patriots can disagree with our new doctrine of pre-emptive war. Good patriots can respect the French. Good patriots can even believe in the United Nations…and feel sad as they wonder why our country is routinely out-voted in the UN 170 to 2. Good patriots can want to get along with the rest of our world. Good patriots can believe that spending more on our military than the rest of the world combined while neglecting vital people needs in our homeland is a sad and tragic mistake. But no good patriot would hijack the flag we all want to love as a logo for their politics. In this regard — I hope — united we stand.

I thank the Lions Club for their service. And look forward to seeing the flags again on Memorial Day.

Rick Steves


Recon Magazine: Guest Column

Patriotism through the Back Door: Rick Steves and the American Flag
By Bill Andersen

Many travelers are familiar with Rick Steves’ popular guide books and PBS television program on travel in Europe. Less familiar, perhaps, to many readers of “Recon” are how his novel views on the symbolic meaning of the American Flag ought to be interpreted. Allow me to summarize the views in question via two quotes, one from a Seattle-area newspaper and one from Mr. Steves’ own website:

In a recent profile appearing in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, author Dan Richman explains: “Steves once defied the local Lions Club and personally removed 50 American flags from the business district, put up by the club a few weeks earlier in a show of support when the war in Iraq began.”

Steves explains the act in his own words: “the flag used this way at this time also symbolizes support of President Bush’s foreign policy.”

Reasonable people can be expected to have differing opinions on the causes and effects of a conflict that is poorly understood and is taking longer and costing more than expected. In a free society such differing views, freely expressed, are the basis for democracy. Steves goes beyond this, however, in a way that is difficult to construe as freedom of expression. In deciding to remove American flags placed by the Lions Club in his hometown of Edmonds (one presumes these flags, where present, were present with the permission of the property owners), Steves committed criminal acts of trespass and perhaps even vandalism.

By resorting to such behavior to express his view that flying the flag constitutes overt support for President Bush’s foreign policy, he makes sport of the very values for which that flag stands and for which our soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq are fighting and dying. Perhaps I’m just taking all of this too hard. Perhaps Mr. Steves really is a (self-described) patriot and that it is simply the case that he and I don’t see eye-to-eye on what that concept means. I thought this might be the case until I saw this, also from the Post-Intelligencer article:

His business flies the blue and gold European Union flag, not the Stars and Stripes. That choice makes a statement about America’s excessive dominance abroad, while countering a national tendency toward conspicuous patriotism, [Steves] said.

Mr. Steves does not want his “patriotism” questioned. Too bad. I am a US Army veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom, and a 13-year veteran of the US intelligence community. As such I have given the bulk of my adult life to the service of my country and to the flag that represents all that is good about it. Most of my friends have done the same; those who have gone before us, yet more. All have sacrificed beyond Mr. Steves ability to understand the word. The meaning of the flags flown by the citizens of Edmonds are not his to interpret. I personally urge all “Recon” readers to cease buying all products produced by Mr. Steves and his company.


Recon Magazine: Rick’s letter to the editor

Dear Recon,

I believe what I did to stand up for our flag was actually a courageous and patriotic act. I am saddened that it takes courage to stick up for our flag this way in our society today.

Here’s what Mr. Anderson didn’t bother to learn: A small faction within our Lions Club got the flags posted and they were intending to leave them there not for a temporary display of patriotism (as everyone enjoys each Memorial Day and so on), but “until the troops came home and the war was over.” I believe our government’s intent is never to bring the troops home and to establish a permanent US military presence in Iraq. I didn’t think it was appropriate to force our entire community to use my flag this way…for months and months on end.

Mr. Anderson claims I defied the Lions Club. He didn’t bother to read about how I visited with the president of the Lions Club, who respects my position. I told him that I believed roughly 40% of our business community didn’t want the flags flying until our troops returned home. These people were too afraid to complain because this is a small town and proponents of the war would take their business elsewhere. Unlike my struggling business neighbors, I don’t factor in “business lost” when I share my thoughts on something I feel is a moral imperative.

I told the Lions Club president about German towns in the 1930s where small businesses (just like those in my town) routinely greeted customers with a cheery “Guten Tag” until gradually the political tide turned. Then, so slowly no one hardly noticed, it became dangerous not to greet customers with a “Sieg Heil.” Eventually, no one said “Guten Tag” anymore. I didn’t want my town to become a Sieg Heil town. The Lions Club president admitted that this was a contentious issue within the club and he agreed to take the flags down that following weekend. They weren’t all down by Sunday, so I took 50 down myself — respectfully and carefully.

Mr. Anderson insults what he calls my “novel” ideas about the symbolism of our American flag not understanding that I don’t want my flag to meet the same fate that the flag of Great Britain has met in Northern Ireland where a third of the population considers it “the butcher’s apron.” The Union Jack has lost its meaning to the Catholics of Northern Ireland because the Protestants there have used it as an icon for a political cause — union with Britain. To anyone who disagrees with our war in Iraq, the flag is not a “support our troops” gesture, but clearly a logo promoting a war based on lies and greed. That saddens me because the flag is all of ours — hawks and hippies alike.

If Mr Anderson feels so strongly enough about my hard-to-understand love of our flag and commitment to my country that he wants to travel without using my guidebooks, that’s his call. But for him to call on all your readers to do the same would make more sense if he first understood that there are more ways than his to love our flag and serve our country. (By the way, a few months after this flag incident, the same Lions Club invited me to talk at their breakfast meeting. After saying the pledge of allegiance, a convivial time was enjoyed by all.)


Edmonds Beacon: Letter to the editor from former Edmonds mayor

Steves should make an apology to all

A good deed has come to pass in our fair city of Edmonds. Prompted by the publicity surrounding the Rick Steves unsavory flag removing incident, the Lions Club has received a very generous donation from a kind, patriotic Edmonds couple. ’Tis great to have such stalwart citizens in our midst. And ’tis great the Lions Club members faithfully post the Stars and Stripes for all to enjoy and respect.

In the past I have applauded Rick Steves on establishing his successful travel business. However, I am chagrined at this recent dictatorial tactic regarding our Star Spangled Banner. Namely, that he should determine when the flags are to be flown in our city? No way!

History has recorded that villages fought villages and families fought families before joining in 13 colonies to establish the United States of America. When on June 14, 1774, the Continental Congress adopted the Stars and Stripes as the national flag, the Founding Fathers did not specify, or demand, when the flag could, or could not be flown. Throughout the years since, however, customs and proclamations by Presidents of the United States have designated dates and places to display it.

Ironically, in a newspaper article written by Mr. Steves, entitled “Europe a Friendly Bargain,” he stated, “I’ve actually noticed more anti-Americanism at home, with Americans angry at each other for their pro- or anti-war stance.” Hello! Does he include himself?

The bottom line is this: I believe Mr. Steves should apologize to the Lions Club members who faithfully post the flags; to the business owners who display the flag at their place of business (many pay a yearly fee to the Lions Club for this service); and to the citizens of this most friendly city. Mr. Steves is most fortunate this Club did not press charges for his aberrant behavior.

Thank you Lions Club members, generous benefactors and business owners who proudly fly Old Glory. Long may she wave!

Laura M. Hall
Edmonds mayor 1992–1996


Letter to Rick from Edmonds business owners

Dear Rick,

We want you to know you are really appreciated here in Edmonds, not only for business and renown you bring, bur for your personal beliefs.

We admire your courage in your recent editorial in the Edmonds Beacon — “spot on!” as they would say in Great Britain.

We also support your political position completely, and you can be assured of our vocal and business support as well.

We became a free nation and democracy through political dissent, and now, especially, we must be prepared to stand up to protect our freedoms…

Shirley Frank
Cary Twichell
Ramona P. Faires
Rowena Miller
De Etta Charron
Art & B. Janice Stamey
Shirley Abrahamson
Greta McKay
Mary Kay Sneeringer
Susan Hildebrandt


Letter to Rick from Edmonds Lions Club member

Rick,

As an Edmonds Lions Club Member I whole heartily agree with what you state within your article.

A few of our members took it upon themselves to post the Flags on other than a national holiday. The general rule within Lions International is to NEVER discuss nor consider politics within our meetings and affairs.

Your article is a clear reminder for some of our members.

Many thanks,

Charles Brady