Monday, December 11, 2006

SO MANY FLAGS

I drove under a highway overpass this weekend. It was an 8-lane road, so the overpass was a long one. The anti-jump fencing on both sides was almost completely covered with American flags – the Stars and Stripes; individual flags were affixed to the chain-wires, end to end.

This multiple use of flags is nothing new. The old newsreels of Germany show parades of hundreds – even thousands – of storm-troopers in close-packed columns, each trooper carrying a large swastika flag. I always got the sense that the gentlemen did protest too much, and that a government that had to go to that extreme was up to no good.

But we’ve seen it often enough over here. Political conventions have been great offenders since at least the middle of the 1800s. It spilled over into Executive photo-ops at some point. Certainly by the Reagan years, the national flag had become almost a studio prop, multiple national flags forming a backdrop – almost a wallpaper – behind Presidents and senior officials. Nor have veterans’ conventions restrained themselves.

There is, I’d say, good reason why the Flag Etiquette rules called for only one national flag – occupying a place of honor – at any particular function or event. In the first place, multiple flags smack of Moses striking the rock repeatedly: it betrays a certain lack of faith. One flag, among mature citizens, should be more than sufficient to recall in them their dedication to its ideals, which – in a democracy – are their own.

In fact, there is something eerily striking about there being only one national flag visible among a large gathering. Its presence – singular, free-standing – elicits a far more striking and gripping call than does a wall-to-wall backdrop of them. And there’s that faith angle: citizens suitably formed are more than able to draw inspiration from a single flag; what it stands for already resides in their hearts. And minds. I get the sense that the many-flags approach either doesn’t have confidence in the hearts and minds of the assembly, or else specifically wants to avoid any mentation and go straight for stirring up feelings – the kind of feelings that don’t arise from thought but rather crowd it out altogether.

The current issue of one of the World War 2 magazines has special issue dedicated to Iwo Jima. In addition to some excellent photos and commentary, there is an interview with Clint Eastwood. Eastwood has made two films: one is a good enough ‘war movie’ as we understand the term: he follows the lives of several of the Marines (and a Navy corpsman) who raised the flag on Iwo.

But he also made a second film: it follows the Japanese defenders, including the Japanese general officer in command: a man who had been to America, who thought going to war with America was a bad idea, and yet – when so ordered – did his best to conduct the military operations assigned to him. He died on Iwo, with almost his entire garrison.

Eastwood is interviewed. In the course of it, the interviewer mentions that Eastwood has already gotten some letters in what is now a far-too-familiar tone: by making a picture from the Japanese point of view he has “dishonored the Americans” who fought and died there. It doesn’t bother Eastwood; he’s old enough and successful enough not to be reduced to jelly by this now-lethal rhetorical gambit. In this, he is hugely different from just about all our politicians, professional media types, and most other public figures, large or small.

This is the trump type of rhetoric. Its purpose is not to elucidate but to quash; not to expand inquiry or the exchange of ideas but rather to prevent them. It is a time-tested weapon of the Advocacies, and one of the mainstays of the Political Correctness (a phrase redolent of the early Soviet era) phenomenon: if you disagree with ‘us’ then you disrespect us. [It’s a childish gambit ,and manipulative: if you don’t give me what I want then you hate me, and if you hate me then I hate you.] Later it became even more virulent: if you disagree with us then you must totally support the very worst of our enemies. Thus: if you question the validity of the numbers of a certain type of ‘oppressor’ then you must support that oppression in all its pomps and works. It’s very bad logic, and very bad democracy. But it passes for the most enlightened and progressive political stance nowadays. A generation of us have grown up knowing no other way to conduct public discourse. Nor in the face of it have the mainstream media been able to maintain faithfulness to their true calling.

It migrated to the Right end of the political spectrum in the mid-1990s, and was a major instrument in the emotive run-up to the current ‘war’ in Iraq. But as has been noted elsewhere on this site, rhetorical ploys only work in a very insulated world. In a wider, wilder world, rhetorical trumpery is worse than useless.

Truth is the best realism. There was Charles DeGaulle, speaking to his people after he had turned down John Kennedy’s offer of some warheads as a sop for the large military assistance that was going to Great Britain. Sitting in front of the camera, behind a desk, he shrugged his shoulders and said (if memory serves) “France has neither the missiles to carry them nor the submarines to launch them”. You don’t get that kind of realism from a government any more. But then, governments nowadays may figure that they don’t have citizens – even voters – who demand realism and truth, or who would know it if they encountered realism or truth.

You can’t ‘make’ truth (let alone Truth) like – as they think in Washington these days – you can ‘make’ history. It’s there. It’s also free for the asking. To seek it and accept it, to live by it, strengthens you immeasurably – mentally, emotionally, spiritually. It protects you from the worst enemy you can ever face: your own illusions.

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