This July 4th, Hoist the Flag of Liberty

Prolonged exposure to John Ashcroft on CNN last week prompted me to do a little late spring cleaning. My kind of "cleaning" occurs when I'm on a mission to find a specific something in the house. One time, it was an old Velvet Underground CD I had to find right away because I'd just heard "Sweet Jane" on a radio outside Starbucks. And I was sure it was in one of 23 sealed boxes stored in my garage since we moved three years ago.

This latest search was for my Gadsden flag. That's the brilliant yellow flag from the American Revolution with the coiled rattler on it, the words "Don't Tread On Me" stitched at the bottom. Truthfully, nothing's actually stitched on my flag. The snake and words are screened onto flammable polyester. I paid seven bucks for it at a gun show in 1995, shortly after Clinton began reaping political profit from Oklahoma City. It was an impulse buy. I thought it was high time I displayed that flag.

So last week, listening to the Attorney General blather about anti-terrorism preparations for our first post-9/11 Fourth of July, I felt compelled to haul out the Gadsden banner again. In case you're curious, I finally found it stashed in a grocery sack behind the old typewriter in the back of my office closet.

In our town, hundreds of us traditionally lug our picnic hampers, wineglasses, and illegal fireworks to the beach on Independence Day. What we call the Big Stuff, the "official," often disappointing show sanctioned by the city fathers, launches from the pier about 9:00 p.m. An hour earlier, the prohibited pyrotechnics – you might call it the People's Stuff – begin lighting up the sky spectacularly along the water's edge for a couple of miles south.

Not too surprising, the beach is always festooned with U.S. flags fluttering beside the bonfires and barbecues. This year, I expect I'll see more of them than ever.

But my little party won't fly Old Glory this summer. Instead, in response to the political profit Bush, Ashcroft, Daschle, and the rest of our masters now reap from last September, we'll hoist my polyester Gadsden flag, named for its designer, "the Sam Adams of South Carolina," radical-liberal Son of Liberty Christopher Gadsden. What better time than this July 4th – while FBI sentinels comb library records for the reading patterns of "suspicious" patrons – to let the old rattlesnake banner snap loudly at our beach site?

Ashcroft says folks like us "give ammunition to America's enemies" when we "scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty." He told the Senate Judiciary Committee last year that acts of dissent may "erode our national unity and diminish our resolve."

Well, tough beans. When politicians openly whittle away the Bill of Rights with bogus promises of security, you should expect some dissent. When the power elite pushes through over-reaching legislation like the USA Patriot Act, and creates ominous cabinet-level Homeland Security posts, and redefines "domestic terrorism" with broader and broader brushstrokes, you should expect a raised eyebrow here and there – or at least a raised Gadsden flag.

"You're not being very patriotic," a friend remarked when I told him my plan.

Of course, he's confusing love of America with love of its government. A common mistake nowadays. Even Clinton publicly made it a few years ago, intentionally or not. Like many, my friend has no historical grounding. He thinks July 4th celebrates the U.S. Constitution, not the treasonous Declaration of Independence. His idea of patriotism is honoring our present-day King Georges, not the magnificent traitors from 1776, like Sam Adams, Joseph Warren, John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and, yes, Christopher Gadsden.

You can be sure John Ashcroft knows what the Fourth of July is really about. He's just hoping most Americans don't.

There are a few days left before July 4th. Why not read Tom Paine's Common Sense, then pass it on to a friend? Rent "The Patriot," the stirring Mel Gibson movie from two years ago, and watch it with your family and neighbors. Recommend to your co-workers.

And if you can get your hands on one, lift high the Gadsden flag. "Don't Tread On Me." That's the real spirit of Independence Day.

June 29, 2002

Wally Conger [send him mail] is a marketing consultant and writer living on California's central coast.

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