Several years ago – before 9/11 it’s worth noting – I was out running some errand or another with my then landlord and good friend, Kevin. This was out in western Massachusetts, though I’m not sure how significant that is. My friend, certainly old enough to be my father, whose one and only child is only four-and-half years my senior, had been in the Air Force when he was my age. I actually have his dog tags still (though that’s another story). So out we were, doing whatever it was, when we came upon a tiny American flag lying on the ground, one of those cheap, handheld, made-in-China baubles given to children during parades, so shoddily made as to be nearly see-through, stapled two times to something as flimsy as a wooden skewer. Something that probably costs 13 cents. Without making a sound Kevin immediately picked up the little flag and began wiping whatever imperceptible smirch was marring the stars and stripes. He held it in his large, worn hands the way one does a wounded bird, sheltering it, nurturing it. His heart was breaking before my eyes, and I am not exaggerating or contriving this for calculated effect when I say that his eyes were watery. This impressed me: that a tiny, 13 cent, throwaway flag from Wal-Mart welled up a tear in my friend’s eye, he who otherwise can be one tough-loving son of a bitch, a curmudgeonly libertarian with a heart of gold but little patience for political science or what he may perceive as pansy-ass ivory tower professors or their privileged students on campus all enraged and on the rag about the latest horrible thing this country has done. But what impressed me more was what The Flag means to someone like Kevin – not in the superficial sense of flag idolatry with which the mean of America ostentatiously boasts the likes of belt buckles and bandanas, bumper stickers and tube socks, polo shirts and bathing suits, sippy cups, picnic plates, napkins, and knockoff knickknacks pawned off a dollar store – but something more devout and sacred, something iconographic. I, who am one of those young cynics who likely does take for granted his privileged freedoms in the name of something more idealistic and audacious (imperialism, racism, environmentalism, human rights, fair wages, feminism, etc), I don’t necessarily envy my friend’s attitude, no more than if some pilgrim picked up a lost cross on the ground and was momentarily paralyzed by the gospel of Christ, but I did and do admire my friend’s attitude. Maybe even more than that.
I was born in 1977 and came of age in the ‘80s. So help me God, I was a Reagan youth by default. The first presidential election I could vote in was the re-election of Clinton in 1996; I voted for Nader. (And just to make sure I frustrate liberals as well as conservatives, I voted for Nader again in 2000. Right, I know, it’s my fault Bush won.) What I am trying to underscore here is I was born in the ennui years of low morale following Vietnam and Watergate, with an oil embargo, an economy in stagflation, and a hostage crisis thrown in as well. From the time of elementary school to going off to college my country in the name of whatever was arming and aiding dictatorships in Central America and then screwing over the workers, both here and abroad, with NAFTA, again in the name of whatever. There was Iran Contra overseas and Oliver North testifying on television. There were covert operations by the CIA or FBI in places like Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras. The “Soviet Union” was an old asthmatic wheezing its tired, dying breaths, and despite policies like Glasnost and Perestroika, or much more telling symptoms like the collapse of the Berlin Wall (which event I watched in real time at my grandparents’ bungalow in Florida), movies like Red Dawn did their best to remind me that communists were a threat everywhere and at all times – those Sandinistas especially.
I lived eight miles as the gull flies from the George Washington Bridge or a 20-minute drive to the Lincoln Tunnel (all exiled New Yorkers living in Jersey swear by their own preferred entry point into The City). I had family in Norfolk, Virginia, a stone’s throw from the huge military academy and base, and others just outside of D.C., where in the city we frequently visited all the monuments and whatnot. I went to school in Massachusetts. I am utterly the product of a middle class lifestyle, a public school and then liberal arts education. My family is profoundly Catholic.
When I was running amok my senior year in high school I would slip out on the sly and attend self-identified socialist meetings in Newark, NJ. My friends and I, who all held ourselves as pretty and pretentious when it came to our politics, political enlightenment, and activism, were greedily devoured by the old guard at such clandestine meetings as young blood, new recruits. It was a flirtation, in the end, a phase. But I did hang an American flag upside-down in my college dorm – not a subversive flaunt for its own provocative chutzpah, but invoking the universal “warning” sign that things were amiss, that the normal state of affairs was off-kilter and in danger. Also on my dorm room door was a picture of Carlos the Jackal that read, “Terrorist…or Freedom Fighter?” (Again, this was well before 9/11.) I’m sure I thought I must have been pretty cool, hip, and “with it” in my black t-shirt featuring Native Americans fighting to protect homeland security since you who know who sailed across the ocean blue… (And yes, I was one of those strident protesters of Columbus Day who sought to rename it “Imperialist European Murderer Day.”)
In my thirties now the world’s a whole lot more gray than in those black-and-white days of halcyon purity. On some level I still think of myself as a socialist, but I don’t believe in socialism. I don’t really believe in democracy either; I don’t think it, any more than socialism, is truly achievable in a country as large and diverse and conflicted as ours. I believe in being local, on as many scales as possible. I grew up jaded and presumptuous, and now I’m just jaded, though more so. I’m willing to listen to an optimist talk to me about the future – mine, ours, the planet’s at large – but I have my doubts. Lots of them.
Admittedly, I’m selective, maybe even myopic, when it comes to patriotism. Just the word “patriotism” alone is loaded and…complicated. We live in a land with no in-between, no room for nuance or sophisticated engagement. Love it or leave it, that’s the level of our tolerance for inward thinking and self-reflection. We cannot, or will not, be criticized, whether by ourselves or the rest of the world. And this is one of the things that is supremely frustrating about living here and being thoughtfully conscientious about our country and its politics. Unconditional love may be fine for motherhood, but it’s a cancer on the body politic with respect to the motherland. We become uncritical jingoists, unapologetic and parochial triumphalists. We become sentimental and yet insensitive.
On some level, I know that there is more to America and us Americans than this false dichotomy grade school twaddle, but I don’t know where. Or I don’t know where other than in hindsight; for whatever or whoever challenged the status quo in its own time was arrested, tar-and-feathered, blacklisted, banned, lynched, firebombed, fire-hosed, detained, tortured, called a traitor, and was otherwise held in contempt. A generation passes by and the new establishment makes nice by raising a plaque or dedicating a street or naming a library or highway rest stop after you. But not without first being brought to the feet of the Grand Inquisitor of Americana.
And when I see the hoards today appareled in their American flag swag I want to sigh or roll my eyes. (Especially if abroad, and intone an impromptu prayer that I secrete enough distinction that someone secretly assumes I’m Canadian.) For when I see the American flag what I see is the boast of a braggadocio and hear the cheers of “USA!…USA!” blaring from the bandstand. I think of absurd impulses towards exceptionalism. I think of the Monroe Doctrine and McDonald’s. I think of the Spanish-American War and remember the Maine. I think of Korea and Vietnam, of Central America and the Middle East. I think of Coke and Pepsi and Microsoft, of Hollywood dumb jock blockbusters, Starbucks and Budweiser, Exxon-Mobil and obnoxious Hummers, of Nike just doing it to the workers in sweatshops overseas to avoid paying taxes back home so that Michael Jordan and LeBron James have sneakers to play basketball in (shoes that kids in Chicago or Newark or L.A. will literally kill each other over). I see Iraq and Afghanistan and wonder about Iran. I hear-see-cringe robber barons and oil magnates, the Rockefellers and the Kennedys, Barbara Bush and the Clintons; the Koch Brothers and Rush Limbaugh, The Wall Street Journal, Charles Krautenhammer, Richard Viguerie, Phyllis Schlafly, James Dobson, Pat Buchanon. I’m flabbergasted why we don’t use the metric system or call football soccer, and I don’t understand for the life of me what the fuck the point of NASCAR is.
(“We are dumber and dumber, good-looking and younger, is the brand new American dream,” sings a guy I know.)
I am harping. Does this make me “un-American”? No, but I’m not being all that objective. I’m not trying to focus on the bad – but it’s awfully difficult to look past it or at least put it all in perspective.
(And yet now in my head I hear Bruce Cockburn — a Canadian — sing, “It’s a stolen land, but it’s all we got.”)
One of my heroes is Rev. William Sloane Coffin, just your run-of-the-mill former CIA member, chaplain at Yale, Freedom Fighter in the deep South, peace activist, anti-apartheid and anti-nuclear weapons promoter, and minister of the Riverside Church in Harlem before retiring and writing books in Vermont. One of my many favorite things he said and wrote about is this:
“There are three kinds of patriots, two bad, one good. The bad ones are the uncritical lovers and
the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country, a reflection of God’s
lover’s quarrel with all the world.”
It must be so. The country was divided before it was born: some of us Royalists, some of us Revolutionaries. When I look back at my idealistic youth, I’m struck by how much a “loveless critic” I was, but I do think at heart my intentions were sound. If I didn’t care, I’d be an “uncritical lover.” Or I’d have moved to Canada and be done with it, which is just another type of not caring. Out of respect and grace, I will stand when I hear the “Star Spangled Banner,” but don’t expect me to sing along. It’s not a silent protest so much as a sense of proportion. I am, however, quite moved by the spirit of “towards a more perfect union.” In other words, we’re not there yet – may never even arrive – but the point is trying. We may fail, but we will try again – and at least “fail better,” to use Samuel Beckett’s words. I for one am done with being smug and coveting the coterie of a political sinecure.
I believe in a lover’s quarrel because nothing is permanent and nothing comes without fighting for it. And it’s out of this quarrel that I have kept that little American flag my friend Kevin retrieved all these many years ago, despite a cross-country move and too many to count since I’ve been living in the Midwest. I will never know what the flag means to him, and knowing what it means to me is an ongoing dialogue. But I have the deepest respect for Kevin’s attitude, which is something I gladly oblige the honor of on a day like today. For me, there’s no snow at Valley Forge or sea salt storming Normandy, and lord knows no one’s reenacting blue versus gray at Gettysburg. But there’s something in those battles worth remembering. Not necessarily commending, but commemorating. We would do well to have a little more humility and less hubris. We’re not #1; since when has nationhood been a popularity contest? Such superlatives are fatuous and do nothing to better our reputation, amongst ourselves or our standing with the world. To quote Rev. Coffin again: “The US does not have to lead the world — it has first to join it.” We’re simply different — for a plethora of reasons, most of them good and honorable; some of them horrendous. We’re no more God’s chosen people than are the Jews or the Tibetans or the Maori or the secular humanists. The late Christopher Hitchens is as significant to the Almighty as are the current nuns on the bus, a baby lamb, or a parasite in the feces of my cat’s litter box. (Sorry Hitch!)
Not to sound all hoary, but the The Declaration of Independence is a rather remarkable document — as is The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen; so why is it tres chic to don a beret with a baguette and brie on Bastille Day, but deemed dumb and lame to sport a little red, white, and blue on July 4th? Is it really hip to celebrate the independence of a foreign country while ashamed, embarrassed, or too self-conscious to do so of one’s own? France, free from sin, colonization, atrocities, racism, misogyny? C’est incroyable!
Heck, just think what it must have been like tinkering on such a screed as the Declaration of Independence during the hellishly hot and humid dog days of summer. It’s fairly phenomenal. Have you been to Philadelphia this time of the year? It’s horrid. Pea soup atmosphere thick and stifling enough to gag a fishmonger. Let alone a roomful of bickering men wearing sawdust stockings and full-piece suits, without the aid of air conditioning! When is the last time you read the Declaration? Or heard it read aloud? Each 4th of July NPR plays a montage of hosts, reporters, and newscasters reading the great document aloud, and each year I look forward to it; it gives me goosebumps.* Here it is, if you are interested — and I encourage you to read/listen along.
(* Plus it also has wonderful whoppers like: “[King George III] has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people (italics mine).)
Look, the “Yankee Doodle” is pretty silly, but you can’t tell me a Sousa march ain’t catchy. When I was younger I would have been more of a pissant, preoccupied with the implications behind “stars and stripes forever” and all that. But today I see it as the musical expression of someone who feels damn lucky to be living here at all, pomp and circumstance notwithstanding.
After all, there is jazz and rock, Jackson Pollock, Whistler paintings and the Chrysler Building, Cole Porter and the Gershwins, Leornard Bernstein and John Cage, Louis Armstrong and Neil Armstrong, Jessie Owens and Jackie Robinson and co-co-cachoo Mrs Robinson, bebop, hip hop, and rap, the Harlem Renaissance, the Howl of Allen Ginsberg and the soar of Emilia Earhart, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau and Edgar Allen Poe, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, baseball, cool cars, ice cream, Upton Sinclair, Edward Murrow, and H.L. Mencken, Rachel Carson and Gloria Steinham, Susan Sontag, Susan B and Cady Stanton, Frederick Douglas, Dr. King, Malcolm X, and Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock. Maybe that’s the version of the “Star Spangled Banner” that does hit me in the gut. Just as Robert Mapplethorpe’s black and white photograph of a sun-strewn, tattered flag does. And you know what? I’m OK with that.