Greetings from Tom in Dunkirk, NY

August 22, 2022

That’s correct, I’m in New York state. I’m on the downhill portion of this journey. (Would that it would be all downhill!) More on how I got there in another blog.

Tom, I thought, as I boarded the greyhound in Bay City.
Michigan seems so real to me now.
It took me two months to cycle from Seattle.
I’ve come to look for America; I’ve come to look for America!

The above, if you don’t recognize it, is a rewrite of the Simon and Garfunkel song titled, “Cathy’s Song.” It is a theme that I’ve carried with me on this journey through, at this point, eight northern states.

AMERICA. (Perhaps more correct would be the United States of America, as I don’t wish to slight the rest of the Americas.) What a huge, diverse, beautiful, ugly, kind, divided, wealthy, poor – (I could go on) nation.

What does this America (at least this small portion of it) look like, at 10mph, on back road and secondary highways from the narrow seat of a bicycle and from this single person’s perspective? Here I offer you only a few ovbservations filtered through a single mind (mine) that speak to the portion of America in which we reside.

We as a nation seem to be enamored with our flag. It is no exaggeration when I say that I’ve seen close to 10,000 flags, or facsimilies thereof, as I’ve ridden on this small sample of US roads. (This number does not include the flags in the many cemetaries I rode by.)

The “stars and stripes” as a symbol – what does it mean and what does it say about us as a nation? Patriotism, of course, is the word that comes to mind. We are a nation that appears to love itself above all other nations. And what does this love look like?

As an aside: when I was discharged from the army back in 1975, having been stationed in Germany, I chose to be discharged in Europe so that I could visit some of the “rest” of the world. One place that I traveled to was Israel and one place that I visited in Israel was Haifa, where I stumbled on the gravesite of Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i Faith. On his tomb were written the words (and I paraphrase here):

The world is but one country and humankind but one of its citizens. Let not a person glory in this: that they love their country. But rather, let them glory in this: that they love their kind. *

(And I would add the rest of creation.)

This statement had, and still has, a profound influence on my relationship to this country and to the rest of the world. I consider myself a citizen of the Earth who happens to live in a particular place on the Earth. “Patriotism” is, for me, just another word in the dictionary. I mention this only because it gives you, the reader, an idea of why I even noticed all these symbols and why I question the meaning of the flag and what it says about America. Essentially, my question is: “What does it mean to ‘love’ one’s country?”

Many of the flags I saw (perhaps as many as 1%) were accompanied by right wing slogans, pro Trump banners and signs, symbols of Christianity, even on a few occasions racist comments (A Latino cyclist I rode with for a few days said that even though he passed as “white” he never felt quite comfortable riding through some of these rural communities.) I was struck that some of the January 6th rioters were carrying the flag (in addition to CSA flags) which were used to break windows and to fight off security guards. Was this an attack on their country, or did they feel their country was under attack? If it were the latter, then they might defend their actions as “patriotic.” Love of country, just like love in general, can obviously come in many different flavors.

As for the other 99% of flag fliers, I can only assume that their love of country is less extreme and more in line with that dictionary definition. For example, in every Indian Reservation I passed through, the flag was flying. I saw African Americans with the flag emblazoned on their t-shirts. I would have expected that these segments of the American population might be less inclined to fly the flag. Shows what I know!

This is turning into another long diatribe, but I have another point I’d like to make on the subject. Riding on the side of the road at 10mph allows me to notice the amount of trash and roadkill that a speeding car never sees. In addition, I witnessed many properties with yards full of junk cars and other material refuse from our materialistic culture. Many of these properties had flags flying (some of these flags were close to rags). So, my question: “If love implies caring for, how to explain this disconnect? The number of flags I’ve seen doesn’t seem to translate into a true caring – not just for the US, but for the Earth (world). How can we love a country that at the same time we abuse?

I have consumed a great deal on this trip and have had to dispose of a complementary great deal (plastic bottles, paper products, my own biological waste). As I deposit this material I mentally thank the Earth for taking our waste. Is this love?

Bob Dylan has something to say about patriotism that’s more confrontational than Baha’u’llah:

They say that patriotism is the last refuge to which a scoundrel clings. Steal a little and they put you in jail [or kneel on your neck]. Steal a lot and they make you King [or president].

* The original quote, from The Tablets of Baha’u’llah, reads: “It is not for him to pride himself who loveth his own country, but rather for him who loveth the whole world. The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.”

A footnote to this blog entry:

I wrote this blog in a coffee shop in Fredonia, NY. When I got back on the bike to ride, it began to rain and then to rain hard. I looked for a place to get out of the downpour and spotted a building with a bench beneath an overhang. Ironically, it was the Fredonia VFW with, of course, a flag flying out front. DUring the time I sat there – an hour or so – waiting for the rain to stop, I heard no thunder nor saw any lightning flash except for one very bright flash of light followed immediately by an earth shaking clap of thunder. The flag pole had been struck! I’m not sure how to interpret this, but it sure seems like a message I’m meant to receive.