Yes, I’m excited about Obama, but I somehow wish he hadn’t caved in on that flag lapel pin.
It has become de rigueur for knee-jerk patriots, especially of the Republican variety, to advertise their love of country on lapels, often, it seems, as a substitute for actually doing something for their country. (In a recently circulating e-mail joke, the Bush library promises that the area for “accomplishments” will be equipped with an electron microscope to help visitors find them.) For a while, Obama was appearing without that mandatory badge, but after carping from the flag-wavers, he started wearing one.
So this got me thinking about what, exactly, it means to display a flag – whether on lapel, lawn, or public space – and I soon thought of Grand Central. Many a time have I looked up at the glorious, vaulting space in the cavernous main room, the morning light filtering through those stories-high windows. And right in the middle, blotting out part of the famous ceiling constellation, hangs a huge American flag, its bright colors and sharp elbows in stark contrast with the room’s muted, graceful lines. Does the sight inspire me to break into song, to start belting out “America the Beautiful”? Not quite. Does it inspire me to yell out an impassioned “America, love it or leave it” or whip out a notepad and start composing an ode to my nation’s leaders. Well, no.
Actually, it inspires me to think of the Rockefeller drug laws and of John Donne.
I’d better explain. After a certain Sept. 11, Americans were in a state of shock. And their spasm of reactions included hauling out every flag they could lay their hands on and thrusting them into public view – thrusting them in passion, in grief, in horror, in defiance, in remembrance. Those who displayed flags – from the tiniest lapel pins to the ones that, yes, covered whole buildings – were surely sending all sorts of messages, from the bitter, narrow “Love it or leave it” to the more measured, almost tearful “You can knock down some buildings and kill thousands of us, but you can’t break our spirit,” or some variation on that theme.
What those displays had in common was a fiery intensity – a burst of feeling that was totally understandable at the time. But here’s what puzzles me now, years after Sept. 11: bursts of passion are, by their very chemical composition, short-lived. As Donne asked, referring to just such a burst, “Who would not laugh at me if I should say, I saw a flask of powder burn a day?”
So why, I wondered, is that flag in Grand Central, unfurled in a burst of passion, still flying? What is it saying now? That we’re still angry and sad? OK, we’re still angry and sad, but do we have to keep shouting it? That we still love our country? I love my wife, but I don’t pin a big sign on my chest saying so. That we remember Sept. 11? Of course we remember. That we are not wavering in our commitment to fight terrorism? We sure botched that one.
I’ll bet anything that if that flag weren’t already flying, it would cross no one’s mind to hang it now. But since it’s there, no one, clearly, dares pull it down. Which leads me, of course, to New York State’s drug laws. They were enacted in a passionate, and as it turns out tragically misguided, spasm of fury at the drug violence of the day. But once in place, they got stuck there, because to weaken them even in the slightest would be to be “soft on crime,” and God knows we can’t be soft on crime. And they lingered, decade after decade, leaving a devastating trail of destroyed lives, before finally being eased slightly fairly recently.
So in Grand Central and on lapels everywhere, the flag is stuck, a permanent shout.
But why shouldn’t that flag fly proudly? Well, it’s connected with the whole idea of loving your country. What exactly does it mean to love my country? If it means loving my government, sorry, I’ll pass. Loving our nation’s history? Yes and no on that one. Loving my fellow citizens? Some more than others. Loving our democratic freedoms? Absolutely, while also mourning their tragic erosion in the past seven years. Loving Avalanche Pass in the Adirondacks? Absolutely.
Think of Grand Central as a symbol, as our physical country in miniature — both have a grandeur, a beauty, a rich history. But to adorn them permanently with nationalist symbols is, frankly, to muddle that beauty, to scar it. Yes, nationalist. There’s a fine but crucial line between heartfelt patriotism and arrogant nationalism, and to my mind any symbol so blatantly overused tromps across that line.
I was in Ireland not long ago, and I recall thinking how jarring it would have been to see huge Irish flags staring me in the face everywhere I went. What must foreign visitors feel when they see all our flags?
About two weeks after Sept. 11, I hiked through Avalanche Pass, and I recall looking out at that stunning canyon of rock and thinking defiantly, “They can’t take that away from us!” I was, I suppose, in my newly minted horror, flying a little mental flag over the landscape. The passion was fresh.
Several years later, I was again in Avalanche Pass, but now it had returned to its quiet, uncaptioned beauty. It was what it was, gloriously.
Why is Grand Central — and lapels throughout the political landscape — wearing a shout of defiance that’s years out of date?