Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Flag Day--long may it wave

I wrote the following on Memorial Day, but I thought I'd post it again today, since it seems even more appropriate for Flag Day.

Flag Day is one of those lost holidays. It was easy to ignore even when I was a kid and paid more attention to holidays. After all, it didn't count because we didn't get off from school, did we? What's a holiday if you can't get off from school? Flag Day's history indicates pretty clearly that the holiday was always intended to be pitched to school children, but they would have gotten much further with kids' appreciation if they'd made it a school holiday.

Flag Day seemed pretty basic--fly the flag. We did that at school anyway in those days (I suppose they still do), as well as saluting it every morning--all without giving it much (or any?) thought. So, here is my essay on giving the flag some thought:

I was driving down the highway yesterday, and I noticed that the car ahead of me had a small American flag decal on its trunk. It got me to thinking about how I've never displayed a flag on my car or my home, except for a small one on my porch on the very first Fourth of July after 9/11. I've never been one to wear T-shirts with slogans, or campaign buttons, or any of those sorts of public declarations of self and/or belief. I'm just a very private person (the apple in front of the face, for example).

But I clearly remember that huge proliferation of flags post 9/11. Flags on cars, on homes, pinned to lapels--everywhere one looked, so many more than ever before. There were, of course, those who carped about it (see this for a typical example). Too nationalistic. Too jingoistic. But I rather liked it--even though at the time I was still an unreconstructed liberal. It gave me a feeling of comfort and continuity. We might be down, but we weren't out yet.

For many days after 9/11 I found myself going to the ocean and sitting on the rocks, watching the ubiquitous commercial fishing boats and ferries go by. Everyone remembers that blue blue sky of 9/11, but I don't know how many recall that it stayed that way for some time afterwards. The weather was spectacular, almost eerie in its beauty, and very serene, although I felt anything but. At the ocean, I would ordinarily see airplanes on a regular basis--but those days, the almost supernaturally blue skies were very, very quiet.

I thought about many things as I sat there. I believed another large attack was imminent, maybe many attacks. I had no idea what could ever prevent this from happening. I thought about George Bush being President, and at the time the thought did not fill me with confidence, but rather with dread. Snatches of poems and songs would wander in and out of my head, in that repetitive way they often do. One was the "Star-Spangled Banner"--all those flags brought it to mind, I suppose.

I'd known the words to that song for close to fifty years, and even had to learn about Francis Scott Key and the circumstances under which he wrote them. But I never really thought much about those words. It was just a song that was difficult to sing, and not as pretty as America the Beautiful or God Bless America (the latter, in those very un-PC days of my youth, we used to sing as we marched out of assembly).

The whole first stanza of the national anthem is a protracted version of a question: does the American flag still wave over the fort? Has the US been successful in the battle? As a child, the answer seemed to me to have been a foregone conclusion--of course it waved, of course the US prevailed in the battle; how could it be otherwise? America rah-rah. America always was the winner. Even our withdrawal from Vietnam, so many years later, seemed to me to be an act of choice. Our very existence as a nation had never for a moment felt threatened.

The only threat I'd ever faced to this country was the nightmarish threat of nuclear war. But that seemed more a threat to the entire planet, to humankind itself, rather than to this country specifically. And so I never really heard or felt the vulnerability and fear expressed in Key's question, which he asked during the War of 1812, so shortly after the birth of the country itself: does that star-spangled banner yet wave, o'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

But now I heard his doubt, and I felt it, too. I saw quite suddenly that there was no "given" in the existence of this country--its continuance, and its preciousness, began to seem to me to be as important and as precarious as they must have seemed to Key during that night in 1814.

And then other memorized writings came to me as well--the Gettysburg Address, whose words those crabby old teachers of mine had made us memorize in their entirety: and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. Here it was again, the sense of the nation as an experiment in democracy and freedom, and inherently special but vulnerable to destruction, an idea I had never until that moment grasped. But now I did, on a visceral level.

Another school memory of long ago was the story "The Man Without a Country." It used to be standard reading matter for seventh graders. In fact, it was the first "real" book--as opposed to those tedious Dick and Jane readers--that I ever was assigned to read in school. As such it was exciting, since it dealt with an actual story with some actual drama to it. It struck me as terribly sad--and unfair, too--that Philip Nolan was forced to wander the world, exiled, for one moment of cursing the United States. "The Man Without a Country" was the sort of paean to patriotism that probably would never be assigned nowadays to students.

Patriotism has gotten a very bad name during the last few decades. I think part of this feeling began (at least in this country), like so many things, with the Vietnam era. But patriotism and nationalism seem to have been rejected by a large segment of Europeans even earlier, as a result of the devastation both sentiments were seen to have wrought during WWI and WWII. Of course, WWII in Europe was a result mainly of German nationalism run amok, but it seemed to have given nationalism as a whole a very bad name.

Here's author Thomas Mann on the subject, writing in 1947 in the introduction to the American edition of Herman Hesse's Demian:

If today, when national individualism lies dying, when no single problem can any longer be solved from a purely national point of view, when everything connected with the "fatherland" has become stifling provincialism and no spirit that does not represent the European tradition as a whole any longer merits consideration..."

A strong statement of the post-WWII idea of nationalism as a dangerous force, mercifully dead or dying, to be replaced (hopefully) by a pan-national (or, rather, anational) Europeanism. Mann was a German exile from his own country, who had learned to his bitter regret the excesses to which unbridled and amoral nationalism can lead. His was an understandable and common response, one that helped lead to the formation of the EU. The nationalism of the US is seen by those who agree with him as a relic of those dangerous days of nationalism gone mad without any curb of morality or consideration for others.

But the pendulum is swinging back. The US is not Nazi Germany, however much the far left may try to make that analogy. And, in fact, that is one of the reasons they try so hard to make that particular analogy--because Nazi Germany is one of the very best examples of the dangers of unbridled and amoral nationalism.

But, on this Memorial Day, I want to say there's a place for nationalism, and for love of country. Not a nationalism that ignores morality, but one that embraces it and strives for it, keeping in mind that--human nature being what it is--no nation on earth can be perfect or anywhere near perfect. The US is far from perfect, but it is a good country nevertheless, striving to be better.

So, I'll echo the verse that figured so prominently in "The Man Without a Country," and say (corny, but true): this is my own, my native land. And I'll also echo Francis Scott Key and add: the star-spangled banner, O long may it wave, O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

(Thanks, Mudville Gazette, for the opportunity to link to your open post on the subject. And Michelle Malkin has links to more Flag Day posts.)


At 2:58 PM, June 14, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For all the criticism the US gets for ostentatious displays of national pride, especially from Europe, it's actually most European nations who have the problem with nationalism in its ugliest form. The National Democratic Party in Germany, the National Front in Frace-- in those countries, these are mainstream parties with a substantial minority following. (Le Pen of the National Front was in a runoff against Chirac, for god's sake. *Mussolini's* granddaughter is a major player in Italian politics.) These people go way beyond waving the flag-- they promote outright hostility to foreigners and immigrants, and love of country based not on common affiliation to common ideals (that'd be us), but affiliation based on bloodline and birth. With that, they win some 5%-18% of the popular vote. Pat Buchanan pretty much pushed the same thing here, and couldn't even get 1%. Almost every American flag on display here is an affirmation of what we all stand for-- and a rebuke to everyone in the world who on the whole, after all the rhetoric is boiled down, stand for nothing.

At 4:03 PM, June 14, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent post. Again you describe my feelings and views very accurately. It took me several years to stop saying goodbye to the Chicago skyline every time I saw it. I still believe it's extremely vulnerable, but I don't have that same feeling that it's about to be destroyed soon.

I have a little flag pin that I've considered wearing, but I feel reluctant to do so. I'm not sure why. I'm always happy to see someone else wearing a flag pin or driving a car or truck with a flag decal.

It's hard making that transition from sophisticated liberal to serious patriotic conservative, isn't it?

At 4:54 PM, June 14, 2005, Blogger goesh said...

Will shouting tom accuse me of being sledge-hammered into patriotism if I say something positive about the flag?? Maybe he's been summoned back to domestic violence court, it might be safe.

At 9:18 PM, June 14, 2005, Blogger Psycho said...

I'm not sheepish, so I'll just say what I feel. God bless America. If I care more about what other people think than expressing my true feelings, I'll be PC, and may as well say nothing.

Anyway, I really liked your article. You captured the essence of how most of us felt on 9/11, vulnerable. Before that day, I felt like America was an invulnerable juggernaut, and that's why I think so much of the world compared us to nazi Germany. I don't think it had as much to do with the pride our people have in our nation or flag.

I'm personally more afraid of Wal-mart than any other anti-US force atm though. Maybe my blog for tommorrow will be about that. ;)

Keep up the great work madame. This is the first blog of yours I have read.

At 7:58 AM, June 15, 2005, Blogger Troy Stephens said...

"Lost holiday" indeed! It was always a bit of a mystery to me growing up, a holiday I don't remember ever being explained to us (thanks for the history link!) or observed with much special attention. We flew the flag every day at my elementary school anyway. (I remember enjoying the privilege on a few occasions of helping to tend our outdoor flag, and learning how to fold it properly and handle it with due respect. I never then imagined anyone feeling otherwise about our cherished national symbol, representative of the best of who we were and what we had achieved.) And yes, there's the added issue of not getting the day off, which to a kid at least seemed to imply a lesser importance as holidays go...

Now, after all we've been through in recent years, but also having taken notice of a seeming loss of confidence in our way of life even prior to 9/11 and its aftermath, the day inevitably carries newfound meaning for me. Thinking about it, I've never really tended to outward displays of affiliation such as T-shirts, bumper stickers, etc. either. I feel such a strong love of and confidence in who we are in my heart, maybe I just assume that others can see that. It's amazing to me what a powerful symbol even a small, discrete flag lapel pin can be nowadays, which I guess has become my flag display of choice on occasions of observance such as 9/11. I've come to especially like historic flags for the reminder of our origins that they provide (the Bennington is a favorite).

The patriotic song I most remember from grade school is "My Country 'tis of Thee". I now wish I had a recording of us singing it to augment my memories of that time. It was only (!) 25 or so years ago now, but I imagine that particular song isn't sung much in schools anymore. The stuff about "pilgrims' pride" just wouldn't be considered appropriate, would it? *sigh*

Thanks again for a beutifully written and insightful blog, and sorry for the lengthy comment!

At 9:46 AM, June 15, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One difference between leftists and the rest of us: when leftists see the flag, the first thing they think of is George W. Bush's face; when the rest of us see the flag, the first things we think of are our friends' and neighbors' faces.

At 10:54 AM, June 15, 2005, Blogger Pancho said...

Kinda' sad here in President Dubya Bush's hometown. I remember right after 9/11 almost every house on my block had a flag of some sort proudly showing.

Now...well there were three of us on the block that had flags up and one of those was a "contract" flag. The Boy Scouts contract with homeowners to put flags in their yards on holidays. Love the Boy Scouts {Eagle Scout here...} but if you are healthy and just can't find the time to put your own flag out...please don't bother paying someone to do it for you.

At 11:31 AM, June 15, 2005, Blogger junebee said...

I read about 25 blogs regularly but yours is by far the deepest. I think you should publish a book. I would buy it.

At 12:06 AM, June 16, 2005, Blogger TmjUtah said...

"The US is far from perfect, but it is a good country nevertheless, striving to be better."

neo, you realize that you have just defined the pivot that separates the Left from the Right, right?

Listen to Howie. Or to Nancy. Or Michael Moore.

No, we aren't perfect. That is a fact. No work of man ever will ever be perfect, but this grand experiment has run through more than two centuries of the most tumultuous human history and the track record speaks for itself.

Rule of law, government accountable to the governed, and free markets provide more strength, stability, and prosperity for the greatest number of citizens than any other system of government yet devised.

A party that operates within our politic that has nice things to say about Castro or racial preferences or socialized health care ought not to be surprised when they lose elections...

...but our moonbats have been losing for thirty years and still can't get past blaming FOX news and evangelical Christians.

At 2:33 AM, June 16, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Look, the fact is that the flag is just a piece of cloth. When you forget that, when you invest it with some kind of sacred identity, you hand great power to whomever controls that symbol. That's why many people are skeptical of the flag, and why we are all better off not taking it seriously. Surely we can honor and believe in the things it supposedly represents -- democracy etc -- without getting misty-eyed about a symbol.

As for the thrust of this blog in general: It's amazing to me that Neo-Neocon seems to think that the only choices availale are complete support of George W. Bush and the neocon agenda on the one hand, and surrender to terrorism on the other. There are a great many of us on the left--and this is something the right absolutely refuses to acknowledge--who understand the seriousness of the war on terror, who support the war in Afghanistan and are not opposed in principle to the war in Iraq, yet who don't trust Bush, who despise his incompetence and his policy of torture, and who don't believe that he has any real interest in democracy (after all, he did steal the 2000 election. And you know it. If you disagree, take the test at www.stopgwbush.us/illegitimate.html). We're amazed and sickened by Bush's complete lack of interest in history and the sociology of power in Iraq, a lack of interest that has cost us dearly (remember the flowers thing? Bush seems to think, in his ignorance, that everyone just wants to be Americans, so no need to plan for reality.) Oh yeah, and we're infuriated by his domestic agenda. And we don't want to live in a theocracy.

Neo-neocon seems to have been so terrified by the events of 9/11 that she's embraced a completely uncritical, completely ahistorical worldview in the service of someone she believes can protect her. And that's just sad.

At 2:02 PM, June 16, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Jesse: I guess you have been doing some reading here, and don't particularly like what you see.

Symbols are symbols, actually, and, as such, they are respected (and people get misty-eyed about them) because they represent those things that we do care about, such as democracy and freedom. I think that's the point of a symbol; I don't confuse the symbol with the thing itself, but the symbol does have meaning.

I haven't gotten around to writing the 9/11 part of my "A mind is a difficult thing to change" series yet. Since I haven't described that part of my process of change, I can understand how you might think what happened was that, after 9/11, I was so frightened that I changed instantly: poof, I'm a neocon!

But that's not what happened; it was actually a very slow process that took about two years and involved a great deal of reading, for example. Nor do I accept everything Bush says or does, by any means. I simply think that the opposition party and its candidates appear to be far worse at understanding or fighting this particular war. I don't demand perfection in fighting a war--which is fortunate, because I doubt we're going to get it--but I think that, on the whole, the Bush administration has done a pretty good job with the really difficult hand it's been dealt as far as the war on terrorism (or, as I and many others prefer to call it, the war on Islamofascism) goes.

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