It's a Grand Old Flag
On June 28, the current president addressed the Naval War College (and through it the nation, or Nation as the Department of Defense likes to say). He was talking about Iraq. He mentioned al Qaeda, according to Jonathan Landay of McClatchey newspapers, a lot:
"The reference, in a major speech at the Naval War College that referred to al Qaida at least 27 times, seemed calculated to use lingering outrage over the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to bolster support for the current buildup of U.S. troops in Iraq, despite evidence that sending more troops hasn't reduced the violence or sped Iraqi government action on key issues.This sort of thing isn't new, of course, and I don't even mean that this administration has been doing it for almost six years now. It's not just the current administration; they've merely elevated it to the level of artistry. It's much older than that. It's been going on for so long it's practically The American Way™. We don't call it "jingoism" or "scaring the people": we call it "waving the flag."
"Bush called al Qaida in Iraq the perpetrator of the worst violence racking that country and said it was the same group that had carried out the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington.
'Al Qaida is the main enemy for Shia, Sunni and Kurds alike,' Bush asserted. 'Al Qaida's responsible for the most sensational killings in Iraq. They're responsible for the sensational killings on U.S. soil.'
"Bush's use of al Qaida in his speech had strong echoes of the strategy the administration had used to whip up public support for the Iraq invasion by accusing the late Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein of cooperating with bin Laden and implying that he'd played a role in the Sept. 11 attacks.
The Merriam-Webster Unabridged defines "flag-waving" as "ardently or violently emotional appeal to or expression of patriotic or partisan sentiment". H.L. Mencken caught it when he wrote in The American Language (1921) (emphasis mine):
The American, from the beginning, has been the most ardent of recorded rhetoricians. His politics bristles with pungent epithets, his whole history has been bedizened with tall talk; his fundamental institutions rest far more upon brilliant phrases than logical ideas.More upon words than ideas.
More upon emotions than actions - or, perhaps more accurately, more upon actions founded on emotions than on ideas.
And this action - this waving of the flag in all places and at all times - is certainly founded upon an emotion. But what is that emotion? Most people would say, it's patriotism.
Merriam-Webster defines patriotism thus: love for or devotion to country : the virtues and actions of a patriot, which they define as a person who loves his country and defends and promotes its interests.
Defends and protects.
Hanging up a flag does neither.
Ambrose Bierce famously defined the terms thus:
PATRIOT, n. One to whom the interests of a part seem superior to those of the whole. The dupe of statesmen and the tool of conquerors.Bierce was a notorious cynic. I wouldn't go that far. But I think it's indubitable that politicians know how to play on emotions - including patriotism - and that many people get caught up in the emotion and mistake the feeling for something it isn't.
PATRIOTISM, n. Combustible rubbish read to the torch of any one ambitious to illuminate his name.
In Dr. Johnson's famous dictionary patriotism is defined as the last resort of a scoundrel. With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer I beg to submit that it is the first.
This happens on both sides of any issue. For many people, just the waving of the flag is proof of something. Just what depends on who they are - and who they see waving it.
Back in September 2001, Katha Pollit wrote in her Nation column
My daughter, who goes to Stuyvesant High School only blocks from the World Trade Center, thinks we should fly an American flag out our window. Definitely not, I say: The flag stands for jingoism and vengeance and war. She tells me I'm wrong--the flag means standing together and honoring the dead and saying no to terrorism. In a way we're both right: The Stars and Stripes is the only available symbol right now. In New York City, it decorates taxicabs driven by Indians and Pakistanis, the impromptu memorials of candles and flowers that have sprung up in front of every firehouse, the chi-chi art galleries and boutiques of SoHo. It has to bear a wide range of meanings, from simple, dignified sorrow to the violent anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry that has already resulted in murder, vandalism and arson around the country and harassment on New York City streets and campuses. It seems impossible to explain to a 13-year-old, for whom the war in Vietnam might as well be the War of Jenkins's Ear, the connection between waving the flag and bombing ordinary people half a world away back to the proverbial stone age. I tell her she can buy a flag with her own money and fly it out her bedroom window, because that's hers, but the living room is off-limits.Here it is, July 2007, and the flag is still pretty much everywhere. Just today (a day I flew from Maryland to Tennessee) I've seen it on delivery trucks (American Yard Work, American Foodstuffs; American Carpet...); on interstate overpasses - waving and hanging, both; on construction cranes; in gas station windows; on the grass outside gas stations; all over Charlotte-Douglas (lots of these because of the upcoming holiday, though); on t-shirts (often accompanied by some religious sentiment); on jeans butts; on suitcases; on briefcases; on lapels; on sappy crying eagle posters; festooning my father's neighbors' yard (in place of their red-lit cross); on do-rags; on antennas; in front of suburban houses; on official-looking flag poles throughout Baltimore and Knoxville; and on hundreds of cars and trucks all over the place.
(In a case of serendipity, the Sunday Doonesbury addresses this very issue:
So many flags. So much waving. And yet...
Oddly, many of them look as though they've been neglected since they were put up - the ones in car windows are faded and torn, the ones on bumpers are scratched and dirty, the ones in yards are faded and raveling, and the ones on the interstate overpasses are sometimes so dirty and ragged you can only guess that they're the flag. And the ones on clothes ... stains, tears, and fading doesn't begin to cover it.
It's as though the mere act of putting up a flag is enough. It doesn't matter what you do as long as you do it wearing an American flag. It's like slapping a yellow magnetized ribbon on your Hummer is enough to prove you "support the troops", even though you still buy foreign oil and vote for the guys who deny soldiers their equipment, guardsmen their full, due time away from combat, and wounded vets their health care. There's the flag, that proves I'm a patriotic American.
And to prove it, every year or so we wax hysterical about people who (gasp!) burn the flag. Even though there aren't two dozen flags burned in any year, nonetheless we patriotic flag-waving Americans (I believe Stephen Colbert calls it "flagophilia") must, must, protect that piece of cloth from burning (if not from becoming tattered, dirty, cut and sewn into swimming suits, or used to cover people's asses - literally, I mean - jeans, swimming suits, and bermuda shorts).
Because we are a nation who loves our symbols. And our symbols are our deeds, far too often.
I said this just over a year:
We've always had a fringe of people who make the symbols of our country almost more important than the substance. Torture our enemies? Okay. Warrantless wiretapping? If that's what it takes. Kick down the doors of innocent people? Omelets and broken eggs. Burn the flag? Off with their heads!That's what patriotism is. Not falling down and worshiping the red, white, and blue idol, but actively working to make the country worth our love.
Perhaps if we spent more time making sure the country was a thing whose symbols people would cherish instead of seeking instead to force people to act as if they cherished them we'd have fewer problems....Our flag is the symbol of something very precious. But part of that something is allowing the symbol to be destroyed sometimes.
And sometimes that means standing up and calling the people who are waving the flag liars.
Sometimes that means pointing out that they're only waving the flag to distract us from what they're waving it over.
Sometimes that means ripping the flag out of their hands so we can see what they're covering up.
What it doesn't mean is that we don't love the flag - what it means is that we do love the country.
Rocky Anderson, mayor of Salt Lake City said it like this last year:
Let no one deny we are patriots. We love our country, we hold dear the values upon which our nation was founded, and we are distressed at what our President, his administration, and our Congress are doing to, and in the name of, our great nation.What we need, as patriots, is a few less flags on display and a little more courage.
Blind faith in bad leaders is not patriotism.
A patriot does not tell people who are intensely concerned about their country to just sit down and be quiet; to refrain from speaking out in the name of politeness or for the sake of being a good host; to show slavish, blind obedience and deference to a dishonest, war-mongering, human-rights-violating president.
That is not a patriot. Rather, that person is a sycophant. That person is a member of a frightening culture of obedience - a culture where falling in line with authority is more important than choosing what is right, even if it is not easy, safe, or popular. And, I suspect, that person is afraid - afraid we are right, afraid of the truth (even to the point of denying it), afraid he or she has put in with an oppressive, inhumane, regime that does not respect the laws and traditions of our country, and that history will rank as the worst presidency our nation has ever had to endure.
As often seems to be the case, Mark Twain has a fine take on it - and shows that not much changes, really. The essay this is from was written in 1901. Change 'the Philippines' to, oh, 'Iraq' or 'the Mexican border' or 'any political rally', and you'll see what I (and he) mean:
I am not finding fault with this use of our flag; for in order not to seem eccentric I have swung around, now, and joined the nation in the conviction that nothing can sully a flag. I was not properly reared, and had the illusion that a flag was a thing which must be sacredly guarded against shameful uses and unclean contacts, lest it suffer pollution; and so when it was sent out to the Philippines to float over a wanton war and a robbing expedition I supposed it was polluted, and in an ignorant moment I said so. But I stand corrected. I conceded and acknowledge that it was only the government that sent it on such an errand that was polluted. Let us compromise on that. I am glad to have it that way. For our flag could not well stand pollution, never having been used to it, but it is different with the administration.