Friday, July 3, 2009

Flag Interlude

I am a patriot: I believe in the values upon which my country was founded, and by which it tries to live. It's unfashionable in intellectual, educated, artistic circles to be a patriot; yet I am one. I share many of the ideals and values stated by the Founders of our country, and the Framers of its Constitution. I also believe, 233 years after the Declaration of Independence was written, that times and culture have changed, and we must evolve with the changes, even as we hold to the ideals and positive values that the Founders put forth in their writings.

I am not a thoughtless, soundbyte-wielding, emotional-button-pushing patriot: if I criticize my country, it's when it hasn't lived up to its own oft-stated values and ideals, when we haven't done the best we could do, or enacted the beliefs we stand for. Few things raise my ire faster than blatant hypocrisy, or double-standards that people employ to avoid walking their talk. I believe that a person must live their beliefs, adhere to their principles, and enact their ideas in their lives, by example, not by words alone.

I believe in healthy dissent, and in political dialogue. In my lifetime, I've been a LGBT rights activist, an anti-war activist, and an environmental activist. I've marched in the streets, I've been in a riot or two, I've practiced civil disobedience en masse. I believe that the political and economic powers do not often have the best wishes of the nation or its people in mind, and must be always monitored and spoken to. I've spoken out when called to by circumstances, outrage and events.

Poet and former AIM activist John Trudell once said, "Don't trust anyone who isn't angry." What he meant was: complacency is death; silence is death; if you are not outraged by world events, you are either enlightened or complicit. If you are not stirred by the suffering of others, if you are not moved to compassionate action, be it quiet and invisible or public and vocal, you leave behind your own humanity.

When Patrick Henry said, "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty," what he meant that the people must always be on the alert against those forces who would erode our liberties in the name of their own power, especially when those they cloak themselves in the flag, or in religion, or in the name of a greater security. It is easy for the government, and the corporations who attempt to control it, to manipulate the truth only when those governed remain silent. So it's our duty to speak out, when we see injustice and the erosion of our civil rights as people. Benjamin Franklin, another of the Founders, said, "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

In these political sentiments I am very much a Jeffersonian: Jeffersonians believe that liberty is the quintessence of life, and government is a necessary evil. Jefferson believed that government must be kept on the defensive at all times—something our contemporary media seems to have forgotten. Jefferson believed that the people have not only a natural right to withdraw consent from their social contract, they in fact they have a duty to periodically shake up government to remind their governors that they serve at the pleasure of the people, and not otherwise. Jefferson believed that liberty is an ideal that must always be strived for, must always be defended, and must be reinforced through necessary dissent. Politically, I am and always have been, a Jeffersonian. Who I vote for in any given election is nobody's damn business; but be assured that I do vote, that I do actively participate in our Jeffersonian democracy.

One of the central values upon which my country was built is that diversity of opinion is to be respected, and disputes are to be resolved by dialogue and discussion. I believe that it is sometimes necessary to dissent from the majority, if one believes strongly. I believe that the dynamic tension of argued values is what moves us forward towards making the world a finer place in which to live. I believe that many of my fellow citizens say hateful and cowardly things and use the principle of free speech as a shield to hide behind when they speak; but while I might hate what you say, and not like you for saying it, I will defend to the death your right to say it. Either speech is free or it isn't: either we can all speak our minds freely, without suffering retribution, or we cannot.

My values do not require others to share them. I do not believe that everyone must believe or think the same as I do. I appreciate diversity. I dislike enforced conformity.

Therefore I am not a super-patriot; I do not believe in those jingoistic "my country right or wrong" or "love it or leave it" sentiments. Super-patriotism is designed to shut down disagreement and dissent. It intends to enforce conformity. It is one of the most thoughtlessly tribal of discourses. It is often intolerance and hate concealing itself behind patriotism. Nationalistic jingoism is one of the most venal of political stances, because it allows no tolerance for dissent or debate. It is anti-Jeffersonian in its claim to be in support of liberty while actively seeking to suppress dissent. It is tyrannical at its root, and it reviles thoughtful consideration of political issues from multiple viewpoints. Jingoistic patriotism is proudly anti-intellectual, proudly rightist, and openly contemptuous of civil political discourse.

I am a patriot because I believe in the values for which my country stands. I am not a super-patriot, because I don't believe that everyone has to share our values, or that we need to impose them upon others. I believe in peaceful coexistence, diversity, and dialogue between those of good intent and with differing opinion.

I do not make the stupid mistake of thinking that the symbol is the real thing. I never confuse the symbol with what it represents. I might appreciate the beauty of the symbol, but I do not reify the symbol into something sacred in its own rite, therefore conflating the symbol with what it represents. When you mistake the symbol for what it represents, it's all too easy to focus on caring for the symbol and entirely neglecting, or even forgetting about, what the symbol represents.

Our national flag stands for liberty and freedom, for diversity within unity, and for equality among all those who adopt the values of the nation for which the flag is an icon. The flag is a visual, symbolic locus of values and ideals. The Stars & Stripes are meant to wave boldly in the face of tyranny, and proclaim liberty; they are not meant to be sacred in themselves. Those who would make of the flag an untouchable, unchangeable, inflexible icon that may not be commented upon nor desecrated have already forgotten the ideals of liberty and free speech that the flag represents. They impose tyranny in the name of liberty, and have no true understanding of the meaning of liberty.

The lovely annual custom in my small Midwestern town is to raise numerous flags on Memorial Day at the local veteran's cemetery, and leave them raised through the Fourth of July holiday. The lawn there is covered with small flags at every graveside, and the summer trees are filled with the light rippling off fifty large flags on tall poles. There is also one tall on a yet higher pole at one end of the cemetery, amidst all the other flags, circled by a small garden, with benches for quiet sitting and contemplation. It's a quiet, lovely place to sit and remember, and give back thoughts of love, honor, sacrifice, and thanks.

I appreciate and like this annual custom. I believe we ought to honor our veterans, living as well as dead, and I honor their sacrifices. And I also think all the flags moving in the breeze are majestically beautiful, purely as living visual art. I am the opposite of a nationalist jingoistic flag-waving super-patriot; and I have always thought the US flag was very beautiful, both as a symbol and as a piece of inspired graphic design. Inspired is the exact word. From Betsy Ross' original design through to the present day, several of the US flags that have been designed and flown are elegant, simple, iconic, beautiful works of art. Few national flags have been so thoughtfully, even archetypally, designed and flown. I admit to some national bias in this aesthetic judgment, yet I also think it's a valid artistic judgment.

This year at my new home I chose to follow my town's custom, and raised a flag, on the garage wall at the front of my home, on Memorial Day. I intend to leave my flag up through the Fourth of July, following the local custom.

I had to buy a new flag, even though I had kept my late father's old flag. The mounting brackets on the wall had disintegrated from weather and age, and so to buy a new mounting bracket, I had to buy a new pole, and a new lightweight flag as well, as a combined kit. My father's flag, which I have folded carefully to store, is a large, heavy, all-cotton flag; it's far too heavy for the new mounting bracket.

I am the opposite of a flag worshipping, jingoistic patriot. I say it again because it's important to distance oneself from the worst forms of nationalism. I have made political protest art incorporating the flag. I love the image of the flag but I do not confuse it with what it is meant to symbolize. I have used the flag's image in satirical art, in collages, in processed photographs, and in other ways. In many ways I remain a political radical who understands the (psychological, spiritual) power of symbols: to evoke, to incite, to inspire. I've participated in anti-war protests. I've had close friends who were Vietnam veterans, who flew the flag upside down, the classic distress signal, all during the first Gulf War. I sympathize with their feelings, their fears, their hopes, their intentions.

Yet I was moved, when I raised my new flag, to stand at attention and give my best imitation of a good Marine salute. I've never done anything like that before. Ever. I'm not military, or ex-military and never have been; although an uncle I was close to was in the Navy in WW II. I respect the Warriors I have known who are ex-military. (And I have dated ex-military; a long weird story for another time.) I have nothing but contempt for the totalitarian impulse in our country to ban flag-burning as political protest; I will always come down on the "free speech" side of that argument. Yet I was moved to salute the flag, when I put it up on Memorial Day. I respect the symbol, and what it stands for. I understand the emotional power the symbol carries. I care deeply for my country, even if some folks have called me subversive and un-American at times for expressing opinions in my art that are in opposition to the mainstream. No one was more surprised than I, that I might stand and salute the symbol. I don't always know why I do what I do: I do know, however, with all my heart and intuition, when something is the right thing to do. As I've grown older I no longer prevent myself from doing the right thing even if it's the strange or embarrassing thing. I've come to trust my feelings, and my intuition, and the field from which they arise.

So, I stood there under the lip of the overhang in front my garage, stood at attention to the best of my ability, and saluted the flag. I don't know why, and I don't need to know why; and neither, I believe, do you.

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