Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Flag

What is it about us Yanks and our flag?  So far as I know, we are alone in the world in treating our flag as a sacramental object.  I was a Boy Scout thousands of years ago (I was drafted by my father).  I remember the lengthy instruction we received in all the elaborate protocol around the flag, and I still remember much of it.  I still find it mildly irritating when I see people neglect to take their flags down after sunset, or leave them in the rain, or never take them down.  I doubt many people know that when lowering the flag to half mast, the flag should be raised to the top of the pole first, then lowered.  I would imagine that it might surprise most people to know that the American flag, when carried in procession, is NEVER dipped in salute under any circumstances; never ever!  I used to know how to ceremonially fold the flag into that neat little military triangle.  Bereaved families of fallen soldiers keep those folded flags in triangular wood and glass box frames and display them with the photos and medals of the deceased.  Lately, this practice includes a lot of families from, and in, Mexico.  A lot of young Mexican immigrants (as well as other immigrants) sign up for the military as a path to citizenship.  There is a very large number of Spanish names on the casualty lists from the current Iraq War.  The folding of the flag over the coffin of a fallen soldier before burial remains a deeply moving spectacle, even to those who resist nationalist sentiments.
It would be a big mistake to underestimate the passions associated with the proper treatment of the flag.  I remember seeing a newsreel from 1936 where a French athlete at the Berlin Olympics dipped the Tricolor in salute and let the banner trail conspicuously on the ground.  It was breathtaking.  Similar treatment of the American flag would spark rioting.  These passions cross the political spectrum and are not confined to the right.  In the 1930s, both parties of the extreme right and extreme left waved lots of American flags.  The German American Bund on the very far right massed American flags the way Nazi flags were massed at the Nuremberg rallies.   The American Communist Party on the very far left also made conspicuous and copious use of the American flag and familiar patriotic images.  They even dragged in "Mother Bloor," one of their members who was also a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution; very red-blooded Americans indeed.  In the upheavals of the 1960s, some members of the "New Left" made a point of attacking the flag and other national symbols.  I doubt the American left will ever do that again if it wants to play anything other than a marginal role in national politics.
So far as I know, we are the only country in the world that has a Pledge of Allegiance to our flag.  That Pledge was written and published in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a Christian Socialist.   Around that time, treatment of the flag was rather lax, and it appeared very infrequently in public.  He wrote it as part of a campaign to put a flag in every public school classroom.
"The true reason for  allegiance to the Flag," he wrote, "is the 'republic for which it stands'... and what does that vast thing, the Republic mean? It is the concise political word for the Nation-- the One Nation the Civil War was fought to prove.  To make that One Nation idea clear, we must specify that it is indivisible as Webster and Lincoln used to repeat in their great speeches."    
The Civil War was still a fresh memory when Bellamy wrote the Pledge.  He refers to Daniel Webster.  There was a long debate between Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun before the war over whether or not Americans were citizens of their states first, or of the whole nation first.  Like many white Southerners at the time, Calhoun considered himself a citizen of South Carolina first, and then an American.  That American identity was only provisional and disposable.  Webster argued for loyalty to the whole nation first, that all Americans have a common identity forged in the experience of the Revolution and in the Constitution.  It was Webster's view that won the Civil War.  One of the most tireless campaigners for enlisting popular support in Britain for the American cause in the Civil War was a journalist working for American newspapers by the name of Karl Marx.  When it comes to American national symbols and popular patriotism, the left-right divide is very blurred.
There is a widespread sense among Americans that the flag is us.  This feeling grows ever more acute as the term "Sovereign People" becomes quaintly obsolete as the United States is transformed into an imperial corporate oligarchy.   The late George Carlin  insisted that the only real choice Americans have left is between paper and plastic.  As our powers, rights, and dignities as citizens are repealed one by one, the flag is all we have left.  Perhaps Mark Twain (certainly no jingoist) said it best when he said, "Loyalty to country always; loyalty to the government only when they deserve it."

The image at the top is NOT the American flag.  It is a painting by Jasper Johns first displayed in 1955 just a few years after Jackson Pollock dripped his last drip.  It is painted on a wood panel in encaustic, a mixture of pigment and beeswax.  This is a painting technique that is very ancient and goes back to Roman times.  He also mixed in bits of newspaper to make the paint surface even richer.  It is definitely a painting.  It was, and remains, one of the most controversial paintings in American art.  Would this painting be as powerful and resonant if Johns made it of the flag of Denmark?  Is this an act of satire, or of reverence?  And if it is satire, then what is being satirized? the flag?  America?  patriotism? or painting? maybe art itself?

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