Saturday, May 02, 2009

FLAGS AND SELFS

It’s a month or more yet to Flag Day, but I’ll put this out there now so folks can think about it beforehand.

I was out driving on the freeway. The bridges carrying roads and walkways over the roadways now have a high chain-link fence. This wasn’t always so, but in the past few decades there have been instances of people jumping off the bridge or kids (or others) tossing rocks off onto the cars below just to see what would happen or else in full knowledge of what would probably happen (apparently NASCAR had become insufficiently reliable for blood and wrecks).

But let me not digress.

The ‘wall’ of chainlink has proven itself useful for other persons’ purposes. This particular roadway overpass – and it’s not the only one I’ve seen – is literally plastered with American flags, the Stars and Stripes. Dozens of them are all hooked up there next to each other, sort of a wallpaper.

It strikes me that there is a significant point in all that.

There was a time when only a few Americans flew the flag. This wasn’t due to lack of patriotism; it was simply because to ‘fly or display the flag’ was to take on a kind of demanding personal responsibility: you had to buy a new one, put up a decent pole, put it up at sunrise, take it down before dark (unless you wanted to illuminate it through the dark hours), and you probably didn’t want to fly it in the rain or bad weather. And if got too old and frayed or faded, you had to get a new one and respectfully – usually by burning; and not with the rest of the trash – dispose of the old one.

They don’t even do that on government buildings now; nor do the vaunted heroes of the emergency services so bestir themselves. In fact, many fire engines now have tattered and smoke-sooted flags attached to this or that piece of pole on the truck; in rain, in snow, in soot and smoke and smog, the rag stays out there. And who can forget the car dealerships – where flags the size of Fort McHenry’s are permanently affixed up there, and the poles don’t even have halyards to lower and raise them.

This is not ‘patriotic’.

Nor is this display on the overpass essentially patriotic. In fact, it’s symbolic – I’m saying – of something that’s gone wrong with Us. The flag no longer possesses a symbolic authority of its own, out of respect for which an individual Citizen would commit to having his or her daily habits changed and his or her time impinged upon.

Nope. The flag is no longer its own master, as it were.

Instead, it’s just another ‘thang’ that certain folks (and there are too too many of them) use to display their ‘feelings’. Respect, as the Brits used to say, ‘don’t enter into it’. It’s a ‘personal expression’ sort of thing. ‘Here’s what I’m feeling now – just so you all know’ … that sort of thing. That’s not ‘patriotism’. It’s self-absorbed histrionic display.

It doesn’t help that the White House itself uses the flag for wallpaper. A President speaking in front of three, four, half a dozen flags all bunched neatly next to each other, is trying to make sure that you are looking at the flags rather than thinking about what he is saying. Or about asking any questions.

And it’s – so typical of the modern sensibility and practice – not a commitment that needs to be tended or even kept in mind. You put the flag(s) up, sigh, feel better, have a Sluppy or mocha-frutti-cino, and go on to some other diversion. The flag stays up there until – I’ve seen it – it rots; like the heads of traitors that used to be hung on pikes outside a royal palace or castle, just to remind everybody how the Leader feels about it.

This is not a hopeful sign. It reminds me that a whole lotta people aren’t really serious in a whole lotta ways, including some important ones.

‘Seriousness’ has been in great disrepute these past forty years. The Hippies thought it was ‘not natural’, inauthentic, conformist, and traitorous to the groovy essence of life and luv. The Yuppies thought it was unnecessary to the task of acquiring a red-suspender job or being an up-and-coming ‘woman executive’ who could smoke good cigars with the bhoys.

And of course, the last thing a consumer-driven culture and its corporate masters want is for folks to stop there in the middle of the store and ask yourself Is this purchase necessary? Better you should swerve on a freeway to avoid a rotted-away flag finally fluttering down from where somebody hung it and went on to other things.

Nor did the Beltway really want much ‘seriousness’ among the citizenry. In a situation where the pols were planning to pander to whatever whacky or dubious demands this or that Identity was going to make, the last thing they needed was a serious Citizenry kicking tires. Better to go shopping.

Nor did the ‘free press’ – eager to keep its ‘customers’ happy – want anybody asking serious questions about the quality of their ‘reporting’. Just get jazzed up or outraged or horrified or whatever emotional knee-jerk the story was going for, and then move on, to the shopping trip or the frutti-cino.

And for that matter, most of the Identity’s nicely remunerated ‘Advocates’ don't want anybody asking serious questions about ‘studies’ or ‘figures’ or – bleaaaaahhh! – ‘consequences’. Just agree and say so or shut up and stay out of the way of ‘progress’ and ‘reform’.

And now there are generations, including the Boomers, who have grown up with the idea that ‘kids’ can be ‘serious’. No, they can’t. The frontal lobes aren’t fully formed until the early 20s; before that, you can want to be ‘serious’, you can ‘try’ (and the practice is a good thing) but there’s more to ‘serious’ than ‘wanting to be’ or ‘feeling’ serious. You need to be ready not just to ‘feel’ it but to frakking ‘do’ it – to do ‘serious’.

It’s not a naturally occurring skill. It doesn’t just come a’bubblin’ up like Jed Clampett’s crude.

Nor is it connected to the erotic sensibility, let alone to the physical apparatus thereto appertaining.

Flag Day, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July – lots of opportunities for public seriousness coming up. But it will help a whole lot if the public is individually ‘serious’. And given the state of the political and pundit class and the ‘elites’ who ‘get it’, let Us not repose Our trust in any of those critters. Boilerplate solemnly delivered is still boilerplate.

My advice: read Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural, a phrase a day, from now until Memorial Day. Maybe look at the photos of the troops We have allowed to be sent to the Eastern Front. Maybe the ones who have returned, clearly or not so clearly wounded – in spirit if not also in body. And mind.

And see what the Spirit of America prompts you to think and to do.

And do it.

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