Monday, July 7, 2008

Flag Me, Baby

"I do not believe many people will ever be led to feel unpatriotic. To argue against these tribal and egoistic instincts is like arguing against gravitation. But I do hope that a fair proportion of the intelligent may be persuaded to resist the establishment, in their own minds or in American society, of patriotism as a religion."

Max Eastman, "The Religion of Patriotism," 1917

"We Americans claim to be a peace-loving people. We hate bloodshed; we are opposed to violence. Yet we go into spasms of joy over the possibility of projecting dynamite bombs from flying machines upon helpless citizens. We are ready to hang, electrocute, or lynch anyone, who, from economic necessity, will risk his own life in the attempt upon that of some industrial magnate. Yet our hearts swell with pride at the thought that America is becoming the most powerful nation on earth, and that it will eventually plant her iron foot on the necks of all other nations.

"Such is the logic of patriotism."

Emma Goldman, "Patriotism: A Menace To Liberty," 1917

Well, we can't say we weren't warned. Goldman ended up roaming the world in exile, while Eastman became a McCarthyite, but what they wrote at the height of American war fever, fanned by Woodrow Wilson and other notable liberals, remains true to this day. Indeed, their essays are understated compared to what we presently face.

Flag worship is and probably always will be a vibrant American mania. It is the short-cut to nationalist conformity, the quickest way to separate Believers from Heretics. You cannot overdo it. Once, many years ago, I tested various political groups and news desks by phoning them with bogus complaints about their insufficient lust for liberty. When I mentioned my "organization," Americans for Patriotic Excess (APE), most of the people I spoke to took me seriously. They truly believed that such a group existed, and they defended their patriotism while confessing that they could always do more. When I tried to sell this prank as an article about nationalism to a leading lefty mag, I was informed that my concept was contrived and thus rejected. If only I had kept my APE mask on for that pitch.

I was reminded of my old phantom group while reading a story in the New York Times about the boon in gigantic American flags for sports events:

"'People go ape when they see it,' said Jim Alexander, a retired Coast Guard commander who runs Superflag, the company that basically invented the industry and once held the world record for the largest flag, which temporarily hung on the Hoover Dam. It was 255 by 505 feet and has been surpassed by a flag in Israel that measures 2,165 by 330 feet. 'It’s a feeling. It’s a feeling that takes over a whole stadium. If anyone in the stands opened their mouth and objected, there would be hell to pay.'"

APE lives. And you gotta love that last line, the very essence of patriotism itself. It would be easy and cheap to say that Hitler's inner-circle would approve of such violent sentiments, as Nazi analogies long ago lost their zing. Besides, modern patriotism, wed to the corporate/military state, is light years beyond what those costumed German lunatics threw around. It's kabuki versus Imax; marbles against a Wii. Still, certain similarities endure.

Take the news that Obama will accept his mule coronation at Denver's Invesco field, where the Broncos play. Dispensing with the traditional intimate indoor setting, Obama's visage will flash to over 75,000 loyal subjects, doubtless drenched in countless Old Glories, with, if the DNC has any martial flair, a squadron of F-16s zooming overhead, heralding a New Dawn of Democratic power and national will. It promises to be a riveting, authoritarian spectacle, "populist" rhetoric dispensed through private media machines. Liberals who are currently wringing their damp hands over Obama's "capitulation" on FISA and related horrors will be reborn in the faith, intolerant of those who remain skeptical. As Superflag's honcho put it: "If anyone in the stands opened their mouth and objected, there would be hell to pay."

Change you can believe in? Ha! You fucking better.