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Commentary :: DNC : DNC : Human Rights : Politics
Hijacked And Hidden: Flags And Symbols... And Even John Wayne
08 Aug 2004
Hearts and Minds, Casey Stengel, Apple Pie, Dead Kennedys, Reconstructing Iraq, American Flags, Semiotics, Patriotism, Freedom of Expression, John Wayne and the Sands of Iwo Jima
London, England
08 AUGUST 2004


Responding to last month's discussion of Ho Hos -that Hostess snack treat of youth- Chance wrote from Long Beach (or wherever he is living now) to offer this bit of contrast:

"No fair remembering what the government told us in the past! We are too busy to actually review past claims for accuracy. Who wants to think that much? Modestly (I propose) that it is much easier to not 'uh-huh' and go with the floe! Hmmm... I always thought SEEDS = FRUIT, NO SEEDS = VEGETABLE. But, then why are tomatoes thought of as a veggie? As an aside, Twinkies have a shelf life in excess of 20 years which is the reason why they don't stamp expiration dates on the wrappers."

20 years!!! I have no idea if this is true, but lets say "uh-huh" and go with it. Forget about whether it's a fruit or vegetable. Twinkies are indestructible. 20 years. The 'War on Terror' might have a shelf life as long as a Twinkie... or beyond.

Apparently the reconstruction of Iraqi infrastructure continues at a breakneck pace -and on budget- for I haven't read anything to the contrary. Liberation will soon be complete with a democratically elected government, electricity, sanitation... the works! I can't wait for privatization, revolution, nationalization of Halliburton properties and a third war.

It must be close to 1pm because the construction workers on Malet Place have gone quiet... either that or an earthquake is imminent.

A preface that isn't a preface: terror is a tactic, not a nation state... we cannot invade terror... tactics don't bleed, people do... the idea here -I suggest- is that the United States government has justified their abominable actions by invoking the phantom abstraction of 'terror'.

By super-sizing patriotism, ignoring international laws and conventions, and denying facts the Bush administration executes a daily military project that would be decried by them if any other nation had done likewise... the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq violated international law, human rights are suspended wherever the US military is deployed and civil rights are curtailed at home. In his weekly radio show on WNUR a couple weeks back, Chuck Mertz commented that -even if at one time it was possible for the US to win the war in Iraq- everything changed after Abu Ghraib. The war cannot be won. The photos and video footage from Abu Ghraib guarantee that the battle for the hearts and minds of Americans will not be won...

As perpetrator and spectator to this war, America can no longer fool itself into believing that we are witnessing the liberation of a people and the installation of democracy.

Back to construction: allow me to provide the following information about how I am about to slap together this pre-fab mélange of words and thoughts. First, the idea comes from my friend Lee. I asked him, "What should I write about?" and he suggested this topic. Hopefully, Lee will write a rejoinder... which is the right word I think because he would be responding to my response.

Second, it has taken two months for me to sit down and actually do this... initially I went right to collecting my thoughts and researching material; but then I just couldn't write. Today is the day though because the clutter has begun to bother those with whom I share my workspace. (It really isn't my workspace, but no one uses it so I have appropriated it and two desks... for the benefit of me.)

And finally, whatever this piece is to become it will be entirely composed under the influence of the following albums (do we still call them albums?): Ted Leo and the Pharmacists' 'Hearts of Oak', Fugazi's 'Argument', Dead Kennedy's 'Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables' and NOFX's 'War on Errorism'.

The request. A couple months back Lee asked me to write something about the American flag and how it has been hijacked by the current administration in Washington, DC. Before I begin darting all over the place, it is probably important to know a few things about us.

We met in San Francisco ten years ago when I was waiting tables at my neighborhood Czech-owned Italian restaurant named the Düsseldorf Café. Although separated by a gap of several generations, we became friends and have maintained a correspondence devoted to investigating the personal in the political. His work in television, radio, politics and academia, as well as his dedication to gay rights overwhelms me. I'll ask, "Hey Lee, did you ever meet Orson Welles?" And he will respond with something like, "No, but his stepfather was my doctor." Or recently, I asked him to tell me what he knew about Reagan and... well, he did. Nancy is a good hostess.

The American flag. The Stars and Stripes. Old Glory. It has its names and millions of us ritually pledged allegiance to it as children. Whether or not we are one nation under (a) God, most of us have stood in classrooms, hands over our hearts and chanted words of loyalty in the direction of this red-white-and-blue piece of cloth.

Flags are more than material objects. They are symbols; and as far as symbols go they pack a punch. In times of patriotic fervor, flags can even be big business... remember in October of 2001 when everyone shelled out the $2.00 for an American flag sticker at the gas station and stuck it on their car. I guess the idea was to express our national unity -our strength. Three years later we are still united... united in the irony that we are engaged in two or three wars... united in our increased safety... united in our increased militarism... united in our prosperity. We are strong.

I'm not sure what the current terror alert level is but our kick ass factor must be off the charts!

How long before our double-mortgaged economy will buckle under the stress of juggling so many military engagements at once?

1968. Mexico. Tommie Smith and John Carlos finished first and third, respectively, in the 200-meter race at the Mexico City Olympics. On the medalist platform, as the American flag rose and the national anthem played each removed their shoes, bowed their head and held a black-gloved fist in the air (the black-power salute) as a protest against the racism endemic in the United States.

In response to this protest against the way African Americans were (are) treated in America, the United States Olympic Committee suspended Smith and Carlos and expelled them from the Olympic Village.

1976. In the middle of the fourth inning of a Cubs/ Dodgers baseball game in Los Angeles, two protestors ran out onto the outfield grass of Dodger Stadium and attempted to burn an American flag. With little hesitation Rick Monday, the Cubs center fielder at the time, ran towards the men, grabbed the flag and then took it to one of the Dodger players who put it in the club house. After security escorted the protestors off the field, the organist started playing 'God Bless America'.

The next year Rick Monday -the first player ever taken in a Major League Baseball draft- was traded to the Los Angeles where he would play another seven years under the management of Tommy Lasorda.

As youth we are inculcated with the idea that the flag is indelibly linked to ideas of nation, service and identity. We are taught that it signifies who we perceive ourselves to be, as well as represents who we wish to be... at least this is the popular flag discourse. Do we really think all of this?

Symbols can mean different things in different places. Here in London when I'm shopping at the market I never ask for two of something by extending my index finger and middle finger, for to do so would be to say, "Fuck you! Two pears, please." Thumb first, then index finger: "Two pears, please."

I suspect that Lee's anger over the hijacking of the flag has something to do with this. For some its symbolism has changed. The American flag may no longer be the universal symbol for freedom and justice that it may have been. In the three short years since September 11th, the flag as trademark for Democracy's brand name -America- has become synonymous with imperialism, destruction and radical Christian fundamentalism.

1998. Tommy Lasorda, former Dodger coach and manager, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the subject of protecting the American flag from acts of physical desecration. In his prepared statement he recounted the actions of Rick Monday and concluded by stating:

"...the Senate can protect an honored symbol that ties every American together, while preserving our First Amendment rights. You can also send a very important message to the young people of this country -that respect for God and country are basic to what our nation stands for and are ideals worth honoring and protecting."

At issue here is the value and freedom of symbolic speech. Lasorda understood speech to mean "when you talk" and immaterial to the issue of flag desecration (an action), while the 1989 Texas v. Johnson Supreme Court decision declared that such politically motivated action was protected under the First Amendment.

A couple of days after the Senate hearings, lawyer Mordecai Rosenfeld wrote a very short critical essay about Lasorda's testimony which included lessons on baseball and rudimentary semiotics. He questioned the logic of the testimony by drawing analogies to the 'national pass time'. Rosenfeld wrote:

"Much of baseball communication depends on the non-verbal. Catchers order the next pitch by displaying their fingers... First-base coaches signal bunt by touching the peaks of their caps... Will all that be gone thanks to Tommy Lasorda? Will catchers have to yell so loud above the crowd's din that the batter himself will hear the instruction... Another danger -the symbolic seventh inning stretch would be outlawed. Fans who stood up at the top of that inning might be subject to ejection or arrest."

For others, the flag and the ideals for which it stands have long been contested as incongruent with reality.

1996. The NBA suspended Denver Nugget's point guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf for refusing to stand while the national anthem is played. He is quoted as saying that the US flag was a "symbol of oppression [and] tyranny. This country has a long history of that. I don't think you can argue the facts."

Where is Abdul-Rauf today? I am not exactly sure. The latest I could find on him is that he played basketball this year in the Russian A Superleague. He did not land in Siberia, but playing for the Ural Great Perm seems pretty damn close.

2004. 'God Bless America' has been played during the seventh inning stretch of every game at Yankee Stadium, since the terrorist attacks of September 11th... since the beginning of the season Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Carlos Delgado silently protested the war in Iraq by refusing to stand whenever 'God Bless America' played. According to the Associated Press, when his actions became publicized before the start of a Blue Jays/ Yankees game in July, some Yankee fans responded with boos and chants of "USA! USA!"

What sort of future awaits Delgado?

Lasorda and others may laud the actions of Monday as those of a true patriot, but criticize Smith, Carlos, Abdul-Rauf and Delgado as misguided; but all seem commendable to some degree. One chose to act on the good that he perceived was America, while the others -even the two men who ran onto the outfield at Dodger Stadium- acted because they believed that America was capable of much more. I would suggest that the flag has not been hijacked as much as those values that it symbolized have been compromised and hidden behind the most reprehensible of injustice.

Here's a curve ball. Former Dodger and Yankee (and Met) manager Casey Stengel -who often had a way of putting the right ideas into even righter words- once said, "If we're going to win the pennant, we've got to start thinking we're not as good as we think we are."

This might seem like a good place to end, but it isn't. It is however a good place to pause and reconsider, "If we're going to win the pennant, we've got to start thinking we're not as good as we think we are."

Patriotism. Having been an opponent of this war -like Carlos Delgado- on the grounds that it is anti-democratic and serves only our seedy imperialist tendencies, my patriotism has often been called into question by many a well-meaning evangelist hoping to save me from the damnation of the USA Patriot Act... and/ or the oil-fueled fires of hell. Sometimes I don't respond and at other times I whip out a jaw-dropping quote, the import of which I barely comprehend. Something like this from Lincoln's 1858 Speech at Edwardsville:

"What constitutes the bulwark of our own liberty and independence? It is not our frowning battlements, our bristling sea coasts, the guns of our war steamers, or the strength of our gallant and disciplined army. These are not our reliance against a resumption of tyranny in our fair land. All them may be turned against our liberties, without making us stronger or weaker for the struggle. Our reliance is in the love of liberty which God has planted in our bosoms. Our defense is in the preservation of the spirit which prizes liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands, everywhere. Destroy this spirit, and you have planted the seeds of despotism around your own doors."

Yes, he had his faults. Yes, he probably suffered from mercury poisoning... but damn it all if he wasn't the most lucid fellow on the block during challenging times.

And Lincoln is on the penny?

Patriotism: if its symbol is the flag, its personification in the American imagination is John Wayne. Other than baseball, gas guzzling automobiles, apple pie and backyard barbeques with Meghan there is nothing more American than John Wayne.

Although he made plenty of war films that sent many a patriot off to war, John Wayne -like Ronald Reagan- did not fight in World War II. Initially, he received a deferral based on familial dependency, but after he joined the USO he was granted a national interest deferral.

If you don't already know, Wayne's real name was Marion Michael Morrison, but everybody just called him the 'Duke'.

If there is any John Wayne film that could be seen as an analogue for our current situation, it is the John Ford film 'The Searchers'. It has it all. The cinematography echoes a beautiful America... while demonstrating the terrible violence that results from racism, greed and revenge. Wayne's darker side is our darker side: a must see. Rent it today!

Growing-up in the Midwest I saw a lot of John Wayne movies...for free (on commercial television). Every time WGN televised one, my mother -a big fan of the Duke- would sit me down to watch it. I've seen them all: 'Rio Bravo', 'The Quiet Man', 'Blood Alley', 'North to Alaska', 'Stagecoach', 'Flying Leathernecks', 'She Wore a Yellow Ribbon', 'The War Wagon' etc. She used to say that he was such a great actor that the movie people only let him die in two films. Yes, he played in all these war films, but he only died twice on screen.

According to my mother, he died in the 'The Shootist' and in 'The Cowboys'. Occasionally I would share this stat with people at parties etc. amazing all with yet another example of the worthless trivial minutiae that I am capable of retaining. Then a couple of years ago I remember watching the 'Sands of Iwo Jima' and being shocked when at the end of the film Sgt. Stryker is shot in the chest just before sucking down another Lucky Strike. Did this really happen, or did I imagine it? As the movie comes to an end, Stryker's body lies in the foreground as four or five marines hoist the American flag atop Mount Suribachi -recreating Joe Rosenthal's famous photograph.

You know this photo. Although black and white, in memory the flag always seems in color: red-white-and-blue. Of any photograph from World War II, it has come to represent the struggle and eventual triumph over the axis powers.

There is probably a way to tie this all up into a nice consumable -and rhetorically sound- package... but I think as it was Lee who suggested the topic, this piece should end with his words. Recall Stryker's dead body there on Iwo Jima, and Rosenthal's photo. This is what Lee wrote me last year when thinking about how fucked-up things were in Iraq and Zimbabwe:

"America’s most treasured image of war is probably Joe Rosenthal’s photograph of the flag raising at Iwo Jima. Is it possible hearts could be as quickened by a photograph of Arab children learning to read, a mother picking fruit from the family’s tree in Zimbabwe, a grandfather smiling as his grandchildren of mixed-race play beside him? We have seen the face of war. Are we able still to recognize the face of peace?"

Hijacked And Hidden © 2004 Adam Christopher Snow

Copyright by the author. All rights reserved.
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So...Should I Be A Flag Waver?
09 Aug 2004
Sybolism. Flags, trinkets and medals.
Freedom. Blood, guts and true glory.
Which one is part of democracy?