Raise High the Progressive Flag

As always, illustration by the inimitable Lynn Suyeko Mandziuk.

As always, illustration by the inimitable Lynn Suyeko Mandziuk.

Ian Powell is a fine artist and entrepreneur. He has been shaping plastic holds for rock climbing gyms for decades and is arguably the best hold shaper America has ever produced. His current company, Kilter Grips, designs and sells climbing holds all over the world. This is his first piece for Thundercling.

God Damn it, I love this country. I am as American as it gets. Born in 1971, deep in another century, in Atlanta, Georgia. Raised by a heavily armed, half-nuts southern white boy gentleman and an English immigrant mother with the soul of an artist and the heart and brains of a business woman. Tough enough to educate herself and punch her way through a booming American industry, out of the 70’s and straight through this century.

I am the product of a marriage between the Old South and an immigrant. I was raised in deco diners, dive bars and record shops. I grew up on guns, boiled peanuts and The Atlanta Arts Festivals. Learned to live on jazz, blues, big band and Ravi Shankar with a juke box in our living room.

I don’t know life without the feeling of love and appreciation for other cultures, specifically black American culture that gave the world jazz, blues and now hip hop. I can’t imagine my compass without the Native American culture that lead us, specifically in the 70’s, to take our connection to nature and the stewardship of the land under our feet seriously. These are simple touchstones. Things to point to. The actual depth of our connection to these cultures remain impossible to quantify. What I’m sure of is that a connection to music and nature is not a hobby, a pastime.  These things are literally at the core of what it means to be human. The mixing and splicing of culture is what it means to be American.

People we’ve spent our whole lives with and all too often think of as different make us who we are. We are the greatest democratic collection of varied people in this planet’s history and that is exactly why we are so innovative and creative. I could never be the artist I am today if you robbed me of my connection to the First Nation people, to African Americans, to the Italian, German, English, Dutch, Irish, Indian and Asian people who have blessed America with their presence and influence.

Yes, of course, we are deeply flawed and always have been. I was lucky enough to be raised to think clearly and always for myself. To look directly at the historically tragic ways this country has treated its own citizenry and in some cases continue to do so. We all have ongoing responsibilities to change ourselves and our country for the better. But I believe the best way is to hold up our flag with pride and love and at the same time ask more from ourselves – more than ever before – to bring equality to all people gathered under it.  We need to raise ourselves, our country, up to the standards of this flag rather than accepting defeat and lowering it to the often ugly reality that still twists and coils just below our collective consciousness. Sometimes the ugliness breaches the surface. This American flag should be the symbol of what we want from ourselves, not some self-congratulatory marker. Raising this flag high does not end our work now, but instead signals a new beginning.

Stop and consider the Statue of Liberty. Really look at it with fresh eyes. Dust off the years of platitudes and movie references and pop culture appropriation. You’ll know you’re seeing it for what it is when you feel those tears well up a bit, when you snatch an extra breath. That’s it! That’s what it means to know how lucky you are to live here and know what it must mean for a new family or a war-beaten refugee or a weary asylum seeker to finally arrive. To see us welcome them with open hearts.

I love my brothers and sisters from all over the world. I need them to be the best designer I can be, to be the best person I can be. That flag is my flag and it’s their flag, too.  I can’t understand people who think its expedient to divide us, to annex our greatest symbol in hopes of division. We are all one people. America is the world’s experiment in immigration. Our flag is the flag of immigration.

March into the streets when necessary. Carry your signs and beliefs and your hopes and desires. And carry our flag. Raise it high. It belongs to one political party no more than you or I. We need to fly our flag with passion and pride at the events in the streets. We need to remind our fellow Americans and the rest of the world what it truly stands for.



Decades have passed since the conservative movement adopted the American flag as a weapon against progressive movements. It’s been an effective tool, demeaning Democrats as effete and weak and, of course, unpatriotic. The Tea Party is only the latest movement responsible for taking partisan control of our flag. Unfortunately, they have wielded it with great power, beginning with the congressional overthrow of 2010. Right wing websites feature the flag almost obsessively, signaling that their news is that of the patriot. The real news. It’s working.

Progressives have done themselves no small favors, either, especially lately. Madonna going rogue at the Women’s March, the fella burning the flag in Iowa, violent rioters at the Inauguration. Just last night, the idiotic violence on the campus at UC Berkely. To wonder if liberals and progressives are actively and belligerently laying landmines in their own garden isn’t out of bounds, at this point.

There’s a chance that all of our protests – and especially those described above – are doing nothing less than solidifying GOP resistance. I’d bet the family farm that Trump and Bannon giggle with glee every time they see protests in the street, especially when devolving into violent civil disobedience. With every lofted fist and every desperate shout, they tighten the screws on their power-hold over a base so desperate to believe in something ostensibly American. I know that this is a veiled strategy to foment power and crush dissent. I also know our protestations are backfiring. I’m sure of it.

Yet. Yet… What else is there to do but peaceful civil protest and disobedience? How else do we purge this crushing frustration and anger? How is it that over half the nation can better give relief to our dissatisfaction in a physical and communal fashion? There is no other way. It’s a god damned boondoggle…

Ian’s call to take back the flag is an important step to gaining legitimacy in both the eyes of the media and the eyes of far-right, alt-right, populist and white nationalist flag waivers. These joyous thieves should no longer be allowed to weaponize a flag that rightfully belongs to all Americans. Let’s bring some action to Ian’s passionate call. Take the flag with you when you march. Speak with care when protesting. Disavow flag burners and hold high our patriotic heritage. This is our flag. Let’s take it back.

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