Flying The Flag

by Aleksandra Priestfield

February 11, 2002

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America has always been a flag-flying nation. It even suffers from a charming delusion that it has invented the color scheme of "Red White and Blue." But few other countries have been so sturdily affectionate to the emblems flying from their flagpoles. Aside from the obvious example of the Union Jack, I can't think of a single other country which has given its flag a name -- and the Americans have done it a number of times (the Star Spangled Banner, the Old Glory...).

I have seen old movie reels of World War II vintage with shouting, laughing people waving tiny American flags at victory parades, including tiny flags clutched in tiny tots' hands, and somehow the picture has managed to remain pure, a picture of a spontaneous joy and an expression of open national pride. But the prism of history shifts sometimes, and there have been much more recent scenes with overtones very similar to those WWII rallies - but the background behind the surface similarities is very, very different now. This time, it's orchestrated. This time, there are flags stuck on special holders (these were invented for this occasion, it appears, because I have never seen anything like it before) for car windows, flags fluttering from car radio antennas, bumper stickers of every shape and size wallpapering car fenders. Ordinary households are now sporting great big banners hitherto seen only on second-hand car dealer lots (filled with last year's Toyotas). The measure of an American's patriotism these days is the number and size of the flags he is flying, and how many bumper stickers adorn his SUV. And this time the flags do not signify a spontaneous joy at a war's ending; they are here to keep a war going strong.

America's anthem is about its flag. Some of the lines in there take on an almost frightening new meaning. Take these, from the first verse:

And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.

Yes, the American flag is beginning to be associated with 'bombs bursting in air'. Usually delivered by planes bearing that flag, to some distant and defenseless place where the people are unable to do anything but cower in the corner of their homes and cover their ears. The seldom-sung fourth verse of the anthem goes thus:

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war's desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav'n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: "In God is our trust."
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

Our God, on our side. Our cause must be just because God is on our side; and God is on our side because our cause is just. It's one of those beautiful circular arguments, a serpent eating its own tail.

In the February 2002 issue of Harper's Magazine there is a list of trademark applications issued since September 11 of last year, presumably for manufacture of bumper stickers. Some of them I've already seen on passing cars. Others I've yet to encounter. But too many of them are frighteningly ludicrous, or ludicrously frightening -- two very different things. Here's a sampling:

Bin There Bombed That
For U.S or Against U.S.
Heroes of the Homeland
I Love The New America
Osama, Yo Mama!
Start Seeing Terrorists
Terrorist 9/11/2001 Hunting Permit
The Great Games of Afghanistan
and, one that particularly gave me chills,

Fear This!
Fear this? Stamped across an American flag? Is this really what the American nation wants? There is a smattering of other kinds of bumper stickers out there, too, and one of them reads We Are Our Own Enemy. With the "fear this" syndrome being engendered out there, this latter sentiment is depressingly true. How do we expect other nations to deal with us when we come out with such bombastic statements? Does America really wish to have relationships only with mortal foes or with sycophants too afraid of us to say anything? True allies, true friends, are equals. But America doesn't want equals. The idea seems to be that either someone has to be afraid of America, or America needs to be afraid of them. And America cannot possibly be afraid of anything. Not with that empire-building "we are the most powerful nation on the planet" mentality.

Any number of those bumper stickers are no more than the Old Glory festooned with some variant of "Proud to be an American." It is a powerful sentiment, but a double-edged one. How far are we from the assumption that anyone NOT sporting such a bumper sticker is by implication not proud to be American? And how far, after that, from surreptitious checking of car bumpers and snitches phoning in sticker-less cars to loyalty police? Can one be proud of one's country without wearing one's flag on one's sleeve -- or, for that matter, can one be proud of what one's country stands for or is thought to stand for, without endorsing that same country's current methods of 'winning friends and influencing people'?

Barbara Kingsolver, bestselling author of nine books and recipient of the 2000 National Humanities Medal, has weighed in on the subject. In an essay entitled "It's My Flag Too" published on January 13, 2002, in The San Francisco Chronicle, Kingsolver refers to an earlier essay she wrote mere weeks after the tragedy in New York. Not one of the editors (including those from such luminaries as the Wall Street Journal) who subsequently published a searing misquote from that earlier essay called Kingsolver to verify her words before they launched a concentrated attack on her in mainstream and cyber-media. "For the record," Kingsolver says, "I do not believe the American flag stands for "intimidation, censorship, violence, bigotry, homophobia and shoving the Constitution through a paper shredder. I believe the opposite, and said so in a Sept. 25 op-ed piece in The Chronicle, defending the flag from men who had waved it to justify death threats against U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, and the murder of a Sikh man in Arizona."

What Kingsolver was questioning was the belief in others that the American flag could ever stand for such monstrous things instead of an emblem of peace, courage, kindness, freedom. She sounded a warning against seeing nationalistic intolerance as patriotism. And this, ironically, became the basis on which her own patriotism was brought to the dock in front of a judge, jury, and, it seems, a waiting executioner.

Kingsolver is no less an American for having spiritual and ethical convictions that make her shun violence as a solution for any problem. She is one of many writers who have added their thoughts on the events of 9/11 and their aftermath; it is instructive to see how much thought and soul-searching some of these pieces have shown, compared to the gung-ho, let's-go-to-war, "fear this" attitude of the mainstream press. And every time such a piece appears it is a dangerous goad to the American public... to think. This is why the writers' patriotism is publicly pilloried. Taint the writer, and the message becomes tainted. The only thing that remains after sanity has been thus smeared and thus rejected is the warmongers' own ideas. Kingsolver, like many of her peers, has been astonished at the kind of vitriol aimed her way by those who have thrown in their lot with the War Party mouthpiece journalistic propaganda.

But, encouragingly, there have been other responses, too -- from people who have been led to re-examine the pain of America's wounds in the light of the context of the complexity of history. "If anyone believes ambivalence about war needn't be given a voice, because it's such a miniscule component of the American conversation, they should see this mountain of supportive mail," Kingsolver says.

These readers have responded to the assaults on writers who have spoken out on what is on their conscience by purchasing those writers' books, by educating themselves into a level above fundamentalist frothing (of any dogma or denomination) by reading up on the tenets of Islam and finding out the recent and relevant political history, much of which has been hidden from easy public access in recent years.

Patriotism does not mean simply being one of the shouting mob. If that were the case, Hitler's rallies in Germany were overflowing with patriots. Why the Western Allies who thought this was not so in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s are now ready to swear that patriotism means exactly and only this -- going out to Nuremburg rallies and waving thousands of little flags -- does not bear close examination. The old adage holds true here -- history has always been written by the winners, and dammit, patriotism shall mean exactly what it is convenient for it to mean. There are shades of Lewis Carroll and Humpty Dumpty in this -- "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less." Patriotism is a high-concept idea, and a love for one's country is a wonderful thing -- but when it becomes a blunt instrument for clubbing the ignorant and the frightened into a corral by threatening them with annihilation if they are found outside of it, it's demeaned into demagoguery.

When card-carrying, flag-waving Americans of today declare that the nation stands united, that an injury to one is an injury to all -- how is that reconciled with the way the children of olive-skinned immigrants from the Middle East, now Americans themselves by right of birth, are looked at with suspicious eyes by those flag-wavers? Citizens of these great United States would be the first to protest with fury if the whole nation is damned by an action taken by a small group of people identifying themselves as Americans. I have heard many times, in response to a global "Americans did this!" statement, the defensive and defiant "But we aren't all like that!". The very people who utter those words are ready to raise an American flag and point it like a weapon at someone who looks or speaks differently from themselves and sometimes destroy the innocent in the explosion of their rage. The Sikh man who died in Arizona in the aftermath of the New York tragedy had nothing at all in common with the men alleged to have taken part in those attacks -- nothing, that is, except the dusky skin and the turban which were now generically identified as The Enemy. The very same people who would react with outrage if people of another country and another faith began bombing churches now drove trucks into mosques; it is hard to understand what they thought they were achieving.

If our hearts are solidly behind those grand words adorning America's bumper stickers today -- UNITED WE STAND -- then all of America's people need to be protected against ignorance, bigotry and discrimination. Religious and political minorities deserve such protection, in what is called the land of the free -- free to be what you need to be, so long as it harms none. But more than that -- all Americans need to be protected against something far more insidious. They deserve to be treated with the respect due to free and thinking human beings; they deserve to be taught the history of their world, and not just their own little corner of it; they deserve to know, in other words, where the attacks on America came from. Mindless war, even in the aftermath of a great hurt like the wound that was left in New York City, is still mindless war; two wrongs, in the words of that hoary old cliché, do not make a right, and slaughtering other innocents is not going to bring those who died on September 11 back to their families. Ironically, it is some of these bereaved families who understand this point rather better than those who urge wounded revenge in their name. A few family members of those who died in the World Trade Center recently made the journey to Afghanistan to meet with the survivors of 'collateral damage' of America's war there. The visit rocked the establishment; so much so, in fact, that not much about the event ever made it into the carefully controlled mainstream media.

Wave the flag, display the bumper sticker, all power to your love for our country! But do stop to think what, in effect, you are supporting when you do so. Are you really, truly, going to be proud of a land whose flag comes with the message Fear This? Is this what America wants to be?

A recent article in British media cogitated upon the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of waging war upon a word, an idea -- and in essence America is doing exactly that, in taking on "terrorism." You might as well try and root out "fear," or "joy," or "loyalty." The concept cannot be shot, hurt, killed. Only the people behind it can. Attacking New York City was not an attack on the United States -- it was an attack on that country's policies. Did it do any damage to those policies? No; all it achieved was murder on a massive scale of people who were not in any position to change such policies, as and of themselves, and who were just unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But the United States has chosen to regard this attack as an attack on its people, while it has announced that it is going to war on a tactic - and these two are irreconcilable. Until we realise that a war kills people while principles are simply handed on from martyr to martyr there is no hope at all -- and no amount of flag-waving is going to hide the ugly truth of those deaths forever.

Alas, it is frighteningly easy to wipe the human faces off an enemy and make them forever the demonic incarnation of evil itself. "God bless America!", the bumper stickers say. But what does that mean? That God should curse everyone else...?

Even though they, too -- the enemy -- are invoking God's blessing on themselves?

We are all in this together. It was a great American who stopped hiding behind God and Flag and dared to write the truth. It's been said many times, in many places, but Mark Twain's War Prayer bears repeating again:

"I come from the Throne-bearing a message from Almighty God! He has heard the prayer of His servant your shepherd and grant it if such shall be your desire after I, His messenger, shall have explained to you its import-that is to say, its full import. For it is like unto many of the prayers of men, in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware of -- except he pause and think. God's servant and yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused and taken thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two - one uttered, the other not. Both have reached the ear of His Who hearth all supplications, the spoken and the unspoken. Ponder this -- keep it in mind. If you beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon a neighbor at the same time. If you pray for the blessing of rain upon your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse upon some neighbor's crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it. You have heard your servant's prayer-the uttered part of it. I am commissioned by God to put into words the other part of it-that part which the pastor, and also you in your hearts, fervently prayed silently. And ignorantly and unthinkingly? God grant that it was so! You heard these words: 'Grant us the victory, O Lord our God!' That is sufficient. The whole of the uttered prayer is compact into those pregnant words. Elaborations were not necessary. When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory-must follow it, cannot help but follow it. Upon the listening spirit of God the Father fell also the unspoken part of the prayer. He commandeth me to put it into words. Listen! "O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle-be Thou near them! With them, in spirit, we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it-for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen." (After a pause) "Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits."

It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.


Aleksandra Priestfield is a writer and an editor. She contributes her regular columns to Swans.

Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted, © Aleksandra Priestfield 2002. All rights reserved.

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Published February 11, 2002
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