Don’t Draw Conclusions From the Flags Mrs. Alito and I Choose to Fly

This Columnist Believes in the Right to Freely Choose What Flies in Front of One’s Home

Don’t Draw Conclusions From the Flags Mrs. Alito and I Choose to Fly | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

Flags are a valuable non-violent form of expression, argues columnist Joe Mathews, who flies various types from his porch. The national flag of Botswana hangs in front of Mathews’ home. Courtesy of author.

Early last year my city councilmember, who likes to walk his dog through our neighborhood, stopped me as he strolled by.

“Are you Mexican?” he asked.

“Nope, I’m Scots Irish,” I replied. “But Mexico is a great country. I’m doing a lot of work there these days.”

The councilmember’s question was not out of the blue. I had been flying the flag of Mexico outside my house for the past six months. He assumed it was some sort of statement.

In fact, I’m a serial and eccentric flier of flags on the $7 plastic flag stand that I’ve mounted next to the front door of my San Gabriel Valley home. I fly different flags for different reasons. In the process, I’ve learned how quickly people make inaccurate assumptions about flags and their meanings.

That’s why I’ve found myself feeling unexpected sympathy for U.S. Supreme Court justice Samuel Alito, who has been in the news for the upside-down American flag flying at his Virginia residence, and a Christian nationalist “Appeal to Heaven” flag flying at his beach house.

Alito’s many critics say the flags demonstrate bias—an affinity with Trump supporters who deny the 2020 election results and support the January 6 insurrection—that violates judicial ethics. They believe he should recuse himself from Trump-related cases, or even resign his seat. Alito has said that his wife was the one who put up the flags, in response to a bitter dispute with neighbors who hate his guts.

Alito’s scandalous, embarrassing presence on the Supreme Court makes me want to fly my own American flag upside down—traditionally a signal of dire distress for the nation. But I’m not sure the flags on his houses should be held against him.

For the record, I’m no fan of Alito. He has cruelly and unreasonably stripped rights from Americans, including rights to reproductive freedom and to protection from gun violence. He’s openly shown scorn and bad faith toward California. And his integrity is questionable, given his naked partisanship and the trips and favors he’s accepted from rich people, including the Eureka billionaire Rob Arkley.

In short, Alito’s scandalous, embarrassing presence on the Supreme Court makes me want to fly my own American flag upside down—traditionally a signal of dire distress for the nation. But I’m not sure the flags on his houses should be held against him.

Because I certainly wouldn’t want my flag choices held against me.

I don’t think my personal choices of flags are endorsements or mean that I can’t be impartial in my chosen profession, journalism. Still, I’m a citizen first and a reporter second. I retain the right to self-expression.

I own dozens of cheap flags (I refuse to pay more than $10 for any of them). Some are sports-related. I’ll throw up a Lakers or Dodgers flag when they’re winning or in the playoffs, since these two franchises unite my Los Angeles hometown like no other institutions. I like to put up a Green Bay Packers flag to please my wife, a Wisconsin native, and her family when they visit. I flew a Japanese flag for a couple of weeks to mourn when the parents of the brilliant shortstop on the youth baseball team I coached decided to move their son back home to Japan.

Mostly I fly the flags of countries with which I have no ties of heritage or culture. I’ve spent 16 years helping run an annual, traveling global democracy forum, and I often fly the flag of the country that will host us next.

I had Mexico’s flag up in advance of our 2023 Mexico City forum. Before that, I flew the Swiss flag for nearly three years (the 2020 Forum in Lucerne kept getting delayed by the pandemic). During that period, passersby and neighbors, not recognizing the red-with-white-cross emblem of Switzerland, often asked if I was a doctor or worked for the International Red Cross.

Last week, after the completion of our forum in Bucharest, I took down my Romanian flag, which had puzzled people for a year. “Did you get citizenship in some French colony?” asked one visiting friend, who noted that Romania’s flag is a dead-ringer for the French tri-color, just with yellow in place of white. The banner has now been replaced with the baby-blue-and-black of Botswana (the 2025 forum is scheduled for Gaborone). No one has recognized that one, except an unfriendly neighbor—feeling you, Sammy Alito—who may wish I’d move there.

I have a practical reason for flying these flags. My house is small. If I did early morning or late-night Zoom calls with forum hosts or funders on the other side of the world, I’d wake up my entire family. Instead, I do the calls outside on the front porch, with the flag of whomever I’m speaking with flapping behind me.

Sometimes my flags get personal, even political. I communicate my heritage by flying the flags of Ireland, Scotland, and Ulster, the Northern Ireland province from which my ancestors emigrated. When times are tough in California, I fly the Bear Flag to express my loyalty.

In recent years, I’ve also mounted the original flag of Hong Kong—where I lived as a child—and the green flag of Taiwanese independence as a protest against China’s threats and intrusions on both places.   But after my Taiwan flag got both praise and warnings about retaliations in my heavily Chinese American and Taiwanese American neighborhood, I took it down.

Flags can have dangerous power, especially when flown at public buildings. Just look at the pitched fights in cities about the Pride flag, or Confederate flags, or the Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter flags. It is no coincidence that armies have long carried flags into battle.

But flags are also non-violent forms of expression that inspire conversations, like the ones I get to have. Neighborhood kids, sometimes even my own, ask me about the countries my flags represent. I tell them about Mexico’s democratic and educational progress, about Switzerland’s 500 years of peace, about Ireland’s surge to prosperity as part of the European Union, and about Romania’s recovery from communist dictatorship.

“Flags will not wave in a vacuum,” science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke observed in 1969. Clarke was talking about space and his hope that nationalism would end when humans traveled beyond Earth’s atmosphere. But flags, even flags of nations, don’t have to represent division. Different flags, flown by different neighbors, symbolize pluralism—our commitment to let people have the loyalties and opinions they choose.

As Flag Day approaches in this polarized country, this eccentric flag lover urges you to leave space for all of us—even our nation’s worst judges—to fly whatever flags we wish, freely.


Send A Letter To the Editors

    Please tell us your thoughts. Include your name and daytime phone number, and a link to the article you’re responding to. We may edit your letter for length and clarity and publish it on our site.

    (Optional) Attach an image to your letter. Jpeg, PNG or GIF accepted, 1MB maximum.