Patriotic rituals

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sun Jul 6 07:12:17 MDT 2003

NY Times, July 6, 2003
Had Enough of the Flag Yet?

THE week before Independence Day, the Dixie Chicks played the Washington 
MCI Center, a mere dozen blocks or so from the White House. "Well, what do 
you know, Washington, D.C.," said the singer Natalie Maines, prompting a 
standing ovation from the crowd. "If I'm not mistaken, the president of the 
United States lives here." Then, as The Washington Post reported, the 
cheers grew even louder.

As we conclude this Fourth of July weekend, let us not forget the happy 
denouement to the saga of Ms. Maines, whose crime against America was to 
tell a London audience in March that she was "ashamed that the president of 
the United States is from Texas." What followed were boycotts, death 
threats and a ritualistic network TV flogging in which, as Jim Lewis put it 
in Slate, Diane Sawyer demanded that the Chicks "affirm their patriotism 
and their support for the troops" in the "tradition of a Stalinist show 

No matter. The Dixie Chicks have been able to exercise free speech happily 
all the way to the bank. They've posed nude for the cover of Entertainment 
Weekly with "Saddam's Angels" emblazoned on their flesh. Their album "Home" 
rebounded from its brief dip, returning to No. 1 on the country chart for 
weeks. Their tour has sold out from its first stop, that left-wing 
stronghold Greenville, S.C. The Dixie Chicks may be bigger than ever.

 From national infamy to renewed superstardom in a matter of weeks: that's 
the kind of story that restores your faith in an America where everything 
is possible. And most Americans, the Dixie Chicks no doubt included, not 
only have that faith in their country but love it as well. Yet you'd never 
know it from the more embittered cultural battles that have raged since 9/11.

"Read `Treason' this Fourth of July, and let the fireworks begin" commands 
the full-page ad hawking the latest book by Ann Coulter. In it the author 
claims that every liberal in the country — or at least every liberal 
Democrat — "hates America" and is guilty of her titular crime, which, last 
time I looked, is punishable by death. (The Dixie Chicks escaped her noose 
by turning traitor only after her book went to press.) According to her 
book jacket bio, Ms. Coulter's expertise in delivering such sweeping 
condemnations derives from having been "named one of the top 100 public 
intellectuals by federal judge Richard Posner in 2001." What she doesn't 
add — and this is typical of her own intellectual methodology in "Treason" 
— is that the list was compiled not on the basis of smarts but on the 
number of times names turned up in the media during the Clinton-hating 
heyday of 1995 to 2000. Mr. Posner's book was titled "Public Intellectuals: 
A Study of Decline" (my italics), and by its ranking system, Ms. Coulter 
turns out to be far less of an intellectual than such conspicuous traitors 
as Sidney Blumenthal, Susan Sontag and Gore Vidal.

At least she doesn't slap the flag on the front of her book to wrap herself 
in it. (She chose instead an idealized photo of something she loves more 
than Old Glory: herself.) The same cannot be said of Dick Morris and Sean 
Hannity, who use the Stars and Stripes as a merchandising tool for their 
own self-aggrandizingly patriotic screeds cashing in on their TV celebrity. 
In this, they follow the lead of their employer, the Fox News Channel, 
which, like its less successful cable rivals, has exploited the flag as a 
logo to sell itself as more patriotic than thou.

Such flag-waving for personal and corporate profit has gotten so out of 
hand that last month, when the House of Representatives passed a 
constitutional amendment banning flag desecration for the umpteenth time, I 
for once found myself rooting for the Senate to follow suit. It would be 
fun to watch TV executives hauled on to Court TV. If NBC's post-9/11 
decision to slap the flag on screen in the shape of its trademarked peacock 
wasn't flag desecration, what is?

As patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, so the coercive patriotism 
of this historical moment is the last refuge of cynics. In "The Story of 
American Freedom," the historian Eric Foner observes that a similar 
phenomenon occurred a little over a century ago, uncoincidentally enough, 
in tandem with "America's triumphant entry onto the world stage as an 
imperial power" during the Spanish-American War. It was in the 1890's that 
"rituals like the Pledge of Allegiance and the practice of standing for the 
playing of `The Star-Spangled Banner' came into existence," as well as Flag 
Day. Our leaders were then professing to spread democracy to Cuba, Puerto 
Rico and the Philippines with the same blithe self-assurance that our 
current leaders promise to bring the American way to Iraq and its neighbors.

The rituals we get to accompany our 21st-century imperial interlude include 
fights over the Pledge of Allegiance and a costumed president's 
re-enactment of Hollywood's "Top Gun." Most bizarre is the defense 
department's new Operation Tribute to Freedom, initiated on Memorial Day 
weekend, which offers talking points to those citizens too challenged to 
figure out for themselves how "to demonstrate public appreciation for 
American men and women in uniform." (One approved method: listing your name 
and "patriotic activities" on a government Web site.) When America's 
patriotism turns this "garrulous," as Alexis de Tocqueville once observed, 
it "wearies even those who are disposed to respect it."


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