Furled Flag A Metaphor For Our Times

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An American flag hangs from our front porch. The flag is three-by-five feet. It is attached to a pole that juts diagonally from a porch post. The flag often gets wrapped around the pole when a breeze kicks up, often winding itself four or five times around the pole. When that happens, I hold on to the post with one hand, lean out and unwrap the flag — whose corner I’m barely able to reach — so that it hangs properly once again. I have repeated this action hundreds of times in the eight-and-a-half years we have lived in this house.

During the last several months — with a pandemic killing more than 200,000 Americans and nearly a million people worldwide — with a deeply polarized nation facing the most momentous election of our lives — with at least 20 million people out of work, with no health insurance or money to pay rent — with street protests across the nation — that furled flag for me has been a metaphor for the condition in which America finds itself — wound tight against itself, drooping, no longer a beacon of hope to the rest of the world.

In fact, we are pitied by many citizens of other nations, who watch in disbelief as the virus takes its toll. One in five reported deaths from COVID-19 in the world have occurred in the United States — though we comprise but 4.25 percent of the world population. Some argue, perhaps justifiably, that some countries, such as China, have hidden the number of fatalities. That still doesn’t explain how the supposedly greatest and richest country in the world has had such a high death rate and such a poor response from our leaders. We must hold them to account.


Five years ago, I wrote about the opening scene of the first episode of the television series “Newsroom,” which has stuck with me since I first saw it several years ago. Actor Jeff Daniels portrays news anchor Will McAvoy, the star of the fictional Atlantis television network. McAvoy is seated at a panel discussion in a university auditorium. A student asks the panel, “What makes America the greatest country in the world?”

Others on the panel respond with the usual patter about freedom and the American way, while McAvoy tries to avoid answering the question. But the moderator keeps pressuring him to respond, and he finally does. It is a tough scene to watch. McAvoy profanely eviscerates both the student and his fellow panel members after replying, “It’s not the greatest country in the world, professor. That’s my answer.”

And he proceeds to enumerate why he thinks so — points he made that I am updating here:

  • America has the highest incarceration rate per capita in the world. That has not changed, even as COVID-19 has swept through prison cells, infecting more than 40,000 prisoners at last count, with more than 500 deaths. That’s according to a study from the UCLA law school. Far too many people are in prison for non-violent crimes, such as drug possession. Prison populations have dropped somewhat since the pandemic, primarily because prisons have stopped accepting new inmates from city and county jails to slow the spread, and courts are not revoking as many probations, according to the Marshall Project.
  • In terms of education, the United States ranks sixth, with 45.67 percent of the population completing at least a two-year secondary education program. We trail Canada, Japan, Israel, South Korea and the United Kingdom in that category.
  • The U.S. child poverty rate ranks sixth in the world among so-called rich countries, at 19.6 percent, according to the World Forum. The only countries in that category with higher rates of child poverty are Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey and Mexico.
  • While there are quite a few countries where gun violence is much higher than the United States, especially in Central America, the Caribbean and South America, there are a number of countries where violent gun deaths per 100,000 are but a fraction of the U.S. rate of 4.43 per 100,000. Those include Singapore, Japan, Indonesia, China, United Kingdom, Iceland and Bangladesh. That’s according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

The pandemic has highlighted a number of inequalities and outright failings of our country:

  • A much higher proportion of COVID-19 deaths have occurred among Blacks and Hispanic Americans compared to White Americans. The death rate among Blacks is more than double that of Whites as of Sept. 15 — 97.9 deaths per 100,000, compared to 46.6 deaths among Whites. The death rate for Hispanics is 64.7 percent, nearly 50 percent higher. That is according to the APM Research Lab, part of the American Public Media Group.
  • The rate of Black Americans killed by police is more than twice as high as the rate for White Americans, according to a five-year compilation of police shootings compiled by The Washington Post.
  • The accompanying economic downturn and job losses, as usual, have disproportionately affected lower income workers — hundreds of thousands of folks who worked in restaurants, hotels, tourism, bars and other sectors largely shut down for months. Those who kept jobs often work as frontline workers, in nursing homes, prisons, grocery stores and elsewhere, risking their lives every day to provide essential services to the rest of us. Nearly 1,000 healthcare workers have died from the pandemic, according to Kaiser Health News.


The skies cleared after a few days of rain from Tropical Storm Beta. (They ran out of “real” names.) The flag dried and is blowing in the breeze, unencumbered no longer. I feel a ray of hope for our country’s future.

But it hangs by a thread. Go vote.

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