Friday, September 11, 2015

Caption the flag

I entered the grounds where I work today. Small Stars-and-Stripes flags dotted the verges of the lawn, a scarce green in this hundred-degree heat wave in my drought-plagued State. I wondered if there were three-thousand or so, but it was probably a tenth of that. A security guard stood in the driveway, taking pictures of them on his cellphone, flags among the beds of pansies which are cared for, next to an empty fountain.

At the meeting I attended, the convener opened with a moment of silence. She commemorated those who had died "helping other people" that day, and those who were the victims. She did not mention the millions who have died before and after this Patriot Day, in the name of vengeance rained upon 19 perpetrators, "death from above," let alone the fatal fraction of that morbid total among those from hereabouts who volunteered or were sent to fight overseas. I teach, as I often report here, those returning from places far hotter than here, and of the state mentally or physically many are in. They are welcomed here to study, and often lauded.

I asked a few vets if they would recommend joining to others. I recall one who vehemently, if calmly, insisted against anyone he knew ever doing so. One of my best students now has in the past left class or been unable to attend as waves of gloom and inner pain leave him unable to motivate himself. I have taught amputees, those with plates in their head or their backs, and those unable to go to sleep. Some must move around, or sit in a way they are trained to cover a room and not turn their backs. Others find it difficult to stay still in a chair due to their injuries, or to focus and escape their demons.

I have been reading a lot of left-libertarian perspectives lately. They seem to echo my own concerns. We get caught up so rapidly in the rush to judge, the compulsion to curse, the joy of fulmination.

The juggernaut of aggression, the grievances, the culture of complaint drives us, even more than in 2001, as we rush to social media and smartphone cameras to upload our laments. As I heard, after a fine dinner of salmon at the nearby Industriel (sic), which I recommend by the way, Salman Rushdie spoke at the L.A. Public Library last night about the "freedom of expression" he noted the enemy in the West. Not Muslim immigration so much as "the victimizers acting as if they are the victims." Those who inflict offense claim they are offended. Trigger warnings create cowed citizens. He also compared intractable contentions such as Israel and Palestine to "contested narratives." Ones that cannot be reconciled. I feel increasingly estranged from those who claim to speak for and to lead us. I live in a nation whose "civic religion" of mottoes, pledges, and slogans disorients my own spirit.

As in the recession in 2008, I wondered post-9/11 if American triumphalism would subside. We all know that it did not. Obama replaced Bush jr., but the drone attacks and the trumped-up victories, as when he appeared to take credit for the Navy Seal raid that killed Osama bin Ladin, rogue scion of the dynasty our dollars supported as surely as they do the Saudis who escaped blame then heaped on Iraq and Afghanistan, also our former cronies in skulduggery, continued "our" Great Game abroad. 

The mandated duties managers insist upon, the erosion of the work-life balance, the wage stagnation, ecological devastation, the stifled possibilities that billions of us have who want to contribute to a better life for all creatures, not only our own (thankfully I guiltily admit today) air-conditioned nests. All these stir within us. During the day, we may be distracted, but how many at night wonder what 9/11 added up to, fourteen years on? My sons can barely recall it, and I now teach a generation that includes incoming students who would have been barely out of diapers on Sept. 11th, 2001. Soon enough, like the Civil War and Pearl Harbor, the San Francisco quake of '06 and the Shoah, we will lose the living links with dramatic rescues, heartbreaking recollections, and a scent of sudden death.

Until the next time. Living in Los Angeles, that may be natural or artificial. A new show, a pre-quel, takes place near me in El Sereno, a largely Latino neighborhood, as the Walking Dead zombies stir.
All deny it officially, but those more vulnerable or streetwise sense the media and political lies. I don't need to scrawl a highlighter to make the allusion. When George Bush at the time rose as he had to, reassuring us, he also encouraged us to get out there and spend, lest our national will falter and our economy--after all those Made in China flags were sold--sputter. My older son recalls reading a David Foster Wallace essay, as I had, about being with his relatives in Illinois the day after 9/11. Where did all those displays of patriotism, on fabric, fluttering from cars and from porches, come?

Like the once-ubiquitous "three-peat" {TM} Lakers pennants from cars, you rarely see the national flag flown. It's intriguing that the "NorCal" contingent seem to have popularized the State's Bear Flag. I always liked it, even if the forty-day or so California Republic was more akin to a (right-wing) libertarian attempt at getting back at los Californios than a true-sons-of-liberty attempt at equality. The poor grizzly on it is the only one left, as the "expansion" obliterated is as surely as dodo and passenger pigeon. No flag seems perfect. I have a liking for a few in my magnet collection at work, and I admit I display Quebec out of a sneaking liking for its stubborn separatism, and New Mexico for its Zia sun's simplicity and beauty; as a kindergartner my favorite reading was, precociously, a booklet Flags of the World given away by a bourbon company. Maps and flags, yes, divide us, but I remain fascinated by both manifestations of the divide and conquer, cheer for the home team, school spirit that deep within us is so difficult even for those who strive for equality and liberty to overcome.

"Every innocent person affected by the bombs we drop, the aid we provide to oppressive governments, the injustices we condone, becomes another potential terrorist. Save lives, overseas and at home—take your power out of the hands of the politicians and the terrorists they raise. Let them know they can't count on your silence." "Your Leaders Can't Protect You But They Can Get You Killed"  This 2006 statement (click for pdf) closes by quoting Tom Paine: “It is the duty of the patriot to protect his country from its government.” Image: "There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people." Howard Zinn.

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