The big news across the right-wing blogosphere this last Saturday was about how John McCain adopted the 12,000 American flags orphaned by Godless Democrats after the pagan orgy of Barack Obama's acceptance speech on Invesco Field. The facts around the situation are a bit muddled, but the narrative runs something like this: a vendor (and/or the Boy Scouts!) spotted piles of trash bags filled with discarded American flags at Invesco Field, apparently ready to be carted off in the next trash collection. He halted the collection in the nick of time and alerted McCain's people, who then came to the rescue, gathered the flags and distributed them to the more deserving crowd at a McCain/Palin rally at the Colorado Jet Center on Saturday. The news is a few days old now and a bit passé; I almost decided not to post on it. But I can't get its implications out of my head, so here goes.
Following a link to Fox News from the Drudge Report on Saturday, I came across the image below, of the flags in their presumed freshly-rescued state:
Now, I don't know the protocol for the proper collection of the unused thousands of American flags after a convention, but I admit the picture struck me as somehow shocking and rather morbid. They looked like cadavers at a makeshift morgue rudely yanked out of their body bags. This, I thought, was the last thing the Obama camp needed, in the wake of Palin's rapid ascent in the American (right-wing) imagination. Hours later, the linked-to image was replaced by the "resurrected" flags, now in the hands of triumphant Republicans:
By that point, the right-wing blogs were filled with frothing-at-the-mouth invective for the anti-American Dems and warmed-over attacks on Senator Obama's alleged lack of patriotism. Primers on the care and proper disposal of the American flag, any American flag, cropped up all over the Internet, and other "random" images of flags in trash bags were posted in a frenzy of vile Democrat exposé:
These commentators see no distinction between symbol and subject: the American flag is America. Therefore, to their minds, not only did Obama not triumph with his acceptance speech that night on Invesco Field, despite the nuance with which many feel he utterly captured the nature of and hopes of this nation. In fact, to their minds, Obama trashed America on that field, because he, through the apparently neglectful actions of his supporters, trashed the flag.
A dangerous point is reached when something as simple as a flag becomes interchangeable with something as complex as a nation, because most observers will opt for the flag. The symbol, pristine and monolithic — always one, always the same no matter how many are physically produced, no matter whether the material be cloth or paper or plastic, whether it is the size of a football field or can fit on the lapel of a jacket — will in their minds replace the nation, with all its flaws, highlights, colors and texture, its points of view, its opportunities taken and missed. They will not see an imperfect nation with great promise; all they will understand is the equation of American soldiers having sacrificed themselves for the Stars and Stripes (which to the right represents a rote set of abstract values for which they seem to have no concrete images or examples and so become meaninlessly interchangeable: freedom, liberty, etc.). Ergo, the flag is sacred.
But sometimes, the flag is magic. It can shift its shape in the service of selling things. Ergo, the flag is sexy.
Nothing complex about that.
There has been a lot of talk here on OS about narrative being the bane of a fair and proper election process. I happen to think that we must make a distinction between useful narrative, such as, say, a candidate's in-depth memoirs, and the virulent memes that clutter channels of discourse for crucial days and weeks (such as the backfiring "Palin the bad mom" or the irrelevant "stupid 'ironic' New Yorker cover"). But, no matter: the American flag is an icon far more efficient than any narrative because it is primal, because it goes right for the cortex and therefore the jugular. It is pre- and post-literate, and elicits some of the most extreme responses of ecstasy and outrage across the globe.
It feels strange to have to say this, but for any McCain-supporting, trashed-flag adopters who may be reading this, I don't hate the flag. I happen to think the flag is a beautiful thing. I like the flag, for representing what I love: my country on the ground level, a nation of strivers, poets, workers and visionaries, rich and poor; of the ideals of the Founding Fathers, and of the terrific vote of confidence they cast for humanity by crafting the Declaration of Independence under the shadow of eons-old monarchy. I hate what the flag has become shorthand for in certain circles: jingoism, unilateral action, arrogance, aggression, moral self-righteousness, a talisman against the Other. In those circles the flag has consumed that other great symbol of the nation, the U.S. Constitution. It has replaced what they seem not to understand. For while the Constitution is a symbol, a presence in the psyche of conscious Americans, it's not an icon. By and large, it is not seen. And at a time when the image is in ascendancy, what is out of sight is, more than ever before, out of mind.
Governor Palin jokingly dismisses the civil rights of the accused (as OS'er Michael Fox discusses here) and attempts to ban books from the public library. Last June Senator McCain slammed the Supreme Court's restoration of habeas corpus at Guantanamo, calling it "one of the worst decisions in the history of this country," and has made statements to the effect that the Constitution is a religious tract. And in an episode I still haven't been able to verify or Google much more of a lead on, our incumbent President Bush lashed out at an aide questioning the Constitutional legality of the Patriot Act, according to Doug Thompson at Capitol Hill Blue:
"'Mr. President,' one aide in the meeting said. 'There is a valid case that the provisions in this law undermine the Constitution."
"' Stop throwing the Constitution in my face," Bush screamed back. 'It's just a goddamned piece of paper!'"
Sometimes the American flag is made of cloth. Sometimes its made of plastic. But surely this is a new turn for the Constitution, to have become a mere "piece of paper."
While the GOP rescues the flag from the trash, let's not lose sight of how the true core of America is being trashed, slowly, systematically, inexorably.
Keep the Constitution in sight, keep it in mind. Let's save it from the trash.