Wednesday, May 09, 2007


One of the biggest fights I ever had with my father was about a ribbon. It was January of 1991, and I was fourteen years old, an enthusiastic little ninth grader sucked in by my high school's "support our troops" campaign on the eve of the first Bush's Gulf War. Some student group or another had taped little yellow ribbons to every locker in the school, with letters admonishing each and every one of us to tie bigger yellow ribbons around trees or mail boxes in our front yards. I, overwhelmed with patriotism, took this idea home with me only to find my father inexplicably outraged. He refused to even entertain the notion of desecrating our beautiful maple tree with a petty, hollow symbol, and was furious that the school would allow such propaganda to occur. I, never popular and not yet comfortable in that position, wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself, wanted to take part in something in which everyone else was taking part, and could not understand my father's rage. It was, I think, the first time I came up against this wall in my father, this solid mass of frustration and anger and disappointment. I still don't know what he actually thought about the Gulf War itself, all two weeks of it or however long it actually was. But for the first time I began to understand the importance of symbols.

My father was drafted during the Vietnam War, put in his time in the Navy on the aircraft carrier Coral Sea and, after that, at the U.S. military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But he was also adamantly opposed to U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, and helped write a letter from himself and other officers on the Coral Sea to President Nixon outlining how our government was being disingenuous about our actions there and why we should withdraw. My father loved this country, the ideas and hopes behind this country, and hated that which undermined it, the special interests, the privileged and rich men in suits. But even more, perhaps, he hated the ease with which symbolism can be used to replace genuine debate. Putting up a yellow ribbon around a tree might be a nice gesture, but it is only that, a gesture, ultimately empty of actual meaning.

In the aftermath of 9/11, everyone wanted to be patriotic, to show their love of country. The president, his handlers, and his minions have taken advantage of this, and we have let them get away with it. They wrap themselves in the American flag as armor against those who would argue against them, and call the dissenters un-American, un-Patriotic, outright traitors, and, perhaps worst of all, French. In the wake of the biggest terrorist attack on American soil, they told us to go shopping, go to the theater, eat out in restaurants, and buy little magnetic yellow ribbons to display on our gas-guzzling, Middle-East dependent Hummers and SUVs. The irony of this would make me laugh if it didn't come quite so close to making me cry.

They say the terrorists want to destroy us because of our "freedoms," and then they want to ban burning the American flag. I know I've said this before, but I'll say it again. Burning the American flag in an act of protest, of righteous rage or of reasoned disagreement, gives the flag an immense amount of power. The flag is a piece of cloth, nothing more, and the flag's image is painted on pick-up trucks, festooned across fair grounds, emblazoned on do-rags and g-strings and boxer shorts. It seems to me that burning the flag out of conviction shows it more respect than wiping fried chicken grease on a 4th of July stars and stripes paper napkin. It also doesn't happen that often, and yet the symbolism of it, of burning this flag, is so potent, so powerful, that again and again certain factions in Congress have tried to ban it, and again and again the ban has been defeated.

Also when I was in high school, my friend Ari bought me a pair of Converse sneakers that sported the American flag, with the sole purpose of burning anarchy signs in them with this really cool magnifying glass-type thing we'd found on the side of the road. Some kids in our school didn't like this very much. Like I said, I was a silly adolescent girl looking for convictions and coming up with empty symbols. But the reason I've been thinking about this stuff today is that I'm reading a novel, quite a beautiful novel actually, called The Grace that Keeps this World. One of the central characters is a Vietnam veteran, and there's a moment that rings false, that jumped out at me, in reference to his return from the war, "wearing his uniform to be spat upon and given the finger." Somehow this story of veterans being spat on after returning from the war blossomed into the zeitgeist in the '70s and has remained with us to this day. There were very few, if any, actual incidents of this occurring, and yet the story of it has profoundly affected our society. Today's obsession with "supporting our troops," the political rhetoric of being "with us or against us," of accusing war protesters of damaging our men and women on the ground, that the White House tosses around with such ease, seem in some ways to be a direct descendant of this spitting thing. But I think the American people are intelligent enough to discern the difference between protesting a war they don't believe in and spitting on an individual in uniform. And I think that the American people are capable of respecting the troops while marching on Washington to end this war. I think we are learning the differences between rhetoric and truth, and Bush's less-than-30% approval ratings (and Cheney's 9% approval ratings) reflect this shift.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great thoughts, and great writing - very moving! M