Tuesday, May 29

Find Out What It Means To Me

Peter Applebome, "Remembering Our War Dead, by Forgetting About Britney and Paris." Times Select, May 27
Long Beach, N.Y.

It must have been the only city manager's memorandum in history to address the war in Iraq, Anna Nicole Smith and Britney Spears in three very short paragraphs.

But for a few days, at least, it made Edwin L. Eaton a minor folk hero--one small voice trying to remind the nation what matters and what doesn't in the million-channel blab fest that is American life.

Mr. Eaton's May 16 memo took notice of the attention given those three pillars of pop culture, cited a need to "in some small way place things in perspective," and then went on: "While our society and media outlets appear to be consumed by the activities of the 'glitterati,' we tend to forget that each day Americans are anonymously dying in Iraq. I think it only fair that they be remembered and honored. To achieve that end, we hereby diredct that American flags throughout the city be flown at half-mast."

AS is so often the case around here, we begin on a tangent. Fly the flag properly, or not at all. The President and the governors of the States are the only people who can order flags flown at half-staff. Not the county auditor, not the Director of Fish & Game, not (as has happened around here in recent years) the mayor or the principal of the elementary school down the street.

It's not simply that anyone choosing to fly the flag should meet the minimum conditions of respect. And yes, I'm old enough to have lived "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore," and the co-opting of Old Glory as a right-wing political banner which, I suggest, has been greatly facilitated by the willingness to violate decorum. The Vietnam-era decal was clearly intended as a Support the War sticker in faux-patriotic guise, but within a few months it became a disgrace to everyone. The white stripes would flake off first, leaving the Red Transparent and Blue waving proudly on the back window of someone's woodgrain-panelled Ford Town & Country. You could still run into their ghosts a decade later. Mummified imperialism, like Lady Liberty in Planet of the Apes.

Correct observance would certainly address that Great Noisy American poshlust taste of the sort that equates light-up creches with religious solemnity. In the days after 9/11 changed everything it would have minimized the spectacle of twin patriotic nicknacks flying at 65 mph down the interstate, or turning left from the right-hand lane (for the record: I understood the impetus, but not the logic, of the gesture, and I couldn't understand how someone could park a car sporting shabby plastic bric-a-brac--these lasted two weeks, not the six months of the 'Nam decal--and feel good about his contribution to the defense of the nation). Correct observance would also mean that your political statement is made with mute respect, rather than screeching anti-fluoridation sloganeering.

So y'know, Mr. Eaton, I certainly feel your pain, but I can't condone the response. We do not fly the flag at half-staff for fallen soldiers. That in itself is part of the soldier's sacrifice. We do not empower every local manager with 50.8% of the vote to make that decision. That power resides with that man in the Oval Office who won't attend military funerals, whose Pentagon wouldn't permit pictures of returning flag-draped coffins, whose former Secretary of Defense signed letters of condolence with an Auto Pen™. It's time to reclaim the power of standing mute. And it's long past time to return the flag to its rightful place. It's been cheapened long enough; that someone could suggest it be flown as a symbol that there are more important things than Paris Hilton is a measure of the sort of hole we got into long before she was born.


Anonymous said...

Ah yes, how well I remember the post-9/11 period, and its multitudes of black, horizon-blotting SUVs rolling down the freeways with their twin plastic flags wedged in the back doors, and slowly shredding until they began to resemble streamers on the handlebars of an old Schwinn. Made one's heart swell with pride.

When I was a kid, information on flag decorum seemed hard to come by outside of the Boy Scouts. We never talked about it, even in elementary school, and the only bit of racial memory that clung to us was the vaguely superstitious taboo that if a flag touches the ground, you have to burn it. For some reason, that got a kid's attention, and we wondered if we drew a flag on our homework, the same rules would apply.

And you know, as a purely practical matter, what's true for the Army and it's cashiered Arabic language experts is true for society as a whole -- if stopped kicking atheists and homosexuals out of the Boy Scouts, there'd be a lot more people in America today who know the proper way to display the flag.

But yeah, right wing reverence has done more to cheapen the flag than all the hippie pocket patches at Woodstock. I mean, what degrades a symbol of national unity more than one side using it as a partisan cudgel? To the point that now it's become just a more polite version of flipping someone the bird, and I'm sure half the people who display it on their vehicles had to think long and hard before deciding between the flag sticker or the decal of Calvin pissing on the Ford logo.

(It makes you wonder, if the Nazis had won World War II, whether the same people would be displaying twin Swastika flags, the Aryan blood-red backgrounds died maroon by the sun, and the edges fraying as they fly down the Autobahn.)

But the conservatives who let it dangle day and night outside their homes until it rots are still trying to pass a constitutional amendment exempting misuse of the flag from the first amendment. (And ironically, exposing themselves to legal peril from the first passing Boy Scout.) But their failure to practice, or even learn any of the basic rituals of respect has made flag desecration a moot point. Ask your average anti-Globalism anarchist whether he thinks the thing is even worth burning anymore.

Anonymous said...

Man, my dad HATES that. Every time he sees those tattered flags on a car he goes into pretty much this same rant.

Me, I'm tired of the "Americans are too obsessed with Paris" thing.

First of all, it's always we. We love to read about Paris Hilton instead of dead soldiers (Incidentally, remember back ten years ago, when it was Jerry Springer and Montel Williams who were cheapening our culture and distracting us from important stuff? Whatever happened to daytime talk?}.

"we tend to forget that each day Americans are anonymously dying in Iraq."

Well, uh, no, we don't. I think about that most days, at least as often as I think about Ms. Spears or Hilton, if not more.

I'm pretty tired of being preached at about how I need to stop committing sins I'm not actually doing.

And while I have no proof, I suspect these kinds of bitch-fests are popular because the people doing them actually don't spend time following the glitteratti, and so they can move on to the fun part of picking the mote out of their neighbor's eye, secure in the knowledge that their eyes are completely beam-free.

I suspect the same is also true of people who preach against homosexuality.