American Symbols: A Larger Meaning Behind that Flag? “MELTING POT” or “MULTI-CULTURALISM,” America is distinctive for its ideal of uniting a diverse population under its flag. Now largely discredited as a metaphor, “The Melting Pot” became a popular phrase after the debut of Israel Zangwill’s 1908 play.Why are American symbols like Old Glory and the Star-Spangled Banner so important? Why does seeing the flag or hearing the national anthem warm the hearts of so many Americans? And why does any disrespect of these symbols—even accusations that prove to be false, like Obama’s supposed “crotch salute”—infuriate people? (Click “Recent Posts” in the right-hand margin to read about this urban legend, along with little-known facts about the flag and the anthem.)

Here’s what I think: There’s a larger, distinctive meaning behind our national symbols that fuels our strong feelings. That meaning is tied to our national identity.

Think about this: National symbols play an important role in every society. People identify with them. They display them with pride. National symbols represent the unity of a people. The “Union Jack,” for example, is made of the individual flags of England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.

But national symbols play a special role in American society. Most other nations are what we call birthright nations. The feeling of belonging to a “people” comes from common ancestry, history, customs, language, and religion. America, however, is not a birthright nation. The sense of belonging to the American people comes from a commitment to a set of ideas and ideals.

Here’s a way to appreciate the difference: Could I become French? I could move to France, learn perfect French, and become a legal French citizen—but would the French accept me as one of them? No. I would have to be born French to be French. Now reverse the situation. Could a Frenchman (or woman) come to the U.S. and become an American? Absolutely.

Being American isn’t about a common ancestry, history, language, or religion. It’s about an ideological commitment. So that’s why American symbols are so important. They represent a common ideological commitment. And in America, that’s the only thing that really makes us a people.

What do you think about all this?

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