Ever since the tragic shootings in Charleston, SC on June 17, 2015 of nine African Americans at a historically important black church, there has been an animated discussion of whether it is appropriate to fly what is commonly known as the Confederate flag. Although it was never the flag of the Confederate States of America, the flag known as the Confederate flag has long been popular among white people in the states that seceded from the United States in 1860 and 1861, namely, South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia. Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina. To many African Americans, however, the flag is a painful reminder of centuries of slavery, followed by generations of racial segregation and systematic humiliation and marginalization at the hands of white people. In the wake of the racially motivated murders in Charleston, people all over the United States are arguing that the symbols of the Confederate States of America are divisive and racist and therefore no longer acceptable in a country trying to heal the deep wounds of a disgraceful past.
In following this debate, I have been struck by the fact that most of the claims made about the Confederate flag in the South could also be said of the star-spangled banner that waves over the state of New Mexico. The flag of the United States of America symbolizes the most recent in a series of conquests that this piece of land has experienced during the past five hundred years. The flag of the USA began to fly over New Mexico shortly after the the war of aggression that President James K. Polk initiated against Mexico in 1846. As a result of that war, in 1848 the United States of Mexico ceded Alta California (which included parts of the modern states of California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming) and Santa Fe de Nuevo México (which included most of the modern state of New Mexico, and western Texas, the Oklahoma panhandle, and parts of Kansas and Colorado) to the United States. In 1848, the flag of the United States of America replaced the flag of the United States of Mexico, which in turn had replaced the flag of Spain when Mexico gained its independence on September 28, 1821. To many of the native Americans whose ancestors had lived in what the Spanish had called Alta California and Nuevo México, none of these flags planted by the descendants of Europeans was especially welcome.
During the sixty-four years between the time that New Mexico became a territory of the United States of America until it became a state in 1912, there was constant discussion in Washington, D.C. over whether New Mexico was fit to be admitted as one of the United States. Senator Albert J. Beveridge of Indiana argued strenuously that the Spanish-speaking and Indian population of New Mexico were incapable of self-rule and must be ruled without their consent by Anglo Americans. It was the responsibility of Anglo Americans, said Beveridge, to educate and civilize the peoples of New Mexico, which of course meant teaching them English. Senator Beveridge’s opinion was shared by a succession of American presidents. President Zachary Taylor favored statehood for New Mexico, but his premature death in 1850 brought an end to presidential enthusiam for that prospect. The next twelve presidents, preoccupied with other issues, were at the best indifferent to New Mexico. President McKinley (1897–1901) was concerned that New Mexico would not be ready for statehood until the various “savages” in the territory were outnumbered by English-speaking Americans. His successor, President Theodore Roosevelt (1901–1909), made no attempt to disguise his contempt for the Spanish, and he feared the Spanish influence in New Mexico had made the men of the territory far too effeminate to rule an independent state, while the Comanches and Apaches were considered untamed and recalcitrant obstacles to the advance of civilization. For a good many of the residents of the territory of New Mexico, the flag of the United States of America betokened a condescending paternalism that was used to justify the exploitation and colonization of the territory and its inhabitants, and statehood came as an indication that the territory had been fully conquered by English-speaking Euro-Americans. It is impossible to see the American flag flying in the state of New Mexico without being reminded of the racist and anti-Catholic attitudes behind the domination of the territory on the way to statehood.
Thinking about the matter even further, what is true of the Confederate flag in the South and the United States flag in the Southwest can probably be extended to every flag planted everywhere in the world (and on the surface of the moon). Flags are to human beings as urine is to canines. They claim territory and mark boundaries. They are by their customary usage symbols of domination, exclusion and exceptionalism. They indicate a willingness to fight to preserve the marked territory. While it can hardly be said that flags are themselves the cause of wars, they are certainly manifestations of all the underlying conditions of war. A flag says “Those who salute this piece of cloth belong here; those who do not should go elsewhere.” Flags—whether they be those of nations, states, counties, municipalities, corporations, educational institutions, religious institutions, rebel organizations, criminal syndicates or yacht clubs—are manifestations of the most animalistic and savage side of the human race. It is time to consider taking every flag ever designed off the flagpole and consigning it either to a bonfire or to a museum of horrors. And it is certainly time to evolve out of all the territorialism and competition for which flags stand.
Seventeen years after New Mexico became a state, President Herbert Hoover signed a Congressional resolution making “The Star-Spangled Banner” the national anthem of the United States of America. The song had been composed in 1814 after a crucial battle in the the Anglo-American War of 1812, the first war declared by the United States after it gained independence from Great Britain on September 3, 1783 . The anthem is a song about the nation’s flag and about American militarism. I first became uncomfortable singing it (and not only because it is a fiendishly difficult tune for anyone but a trained singer to carry) while I was an adolescent, and I have never been willing to sing it as an adult. The same is true of the pledge of allegiance to the flag. I simply will not say those words. It is my conviction that the age of nations must come to an end so that the human race can evolve beyond itself and leave itself behind—something it must do for its own survival.