The flag is also the symbol of a nation bitterly divided over a foreign war.
On my television, the first bombs raining down on Baghdad sound like the rumble of a Fourth of July fireworks display. I open my email inbox to offers for discounted American flags and Old Glory screensavers. Turning again to the TV screen, I cringe to see the behemoth that is the U.S. military kick off what could very well be the start of WWIII.
I love my country. I say this without a hint of irony and in so doing, surprise myself, because love of country has, for so long, been the preserve of nostalgic fables told about my grandparents' great generation. Perhaps it's more accurate to say I love the idea of my country, of democracy, like Plato loved the idea of The Idea, knowing full well that both, in their pure forms, are too often out of reach.
I won't pretend here to understand the convoluted political forces involved in the willful implosion of global diplomacy. But I, like many, have watched with dismay and embarrassment as the flag, like the Golden Arches and the Coca-Cola ribbon, has covered the world in banality.
Now, apropos of Hannah Arendt's observation, it turns out that the banal is but a mask for institutional lawlessness, extending from the face of aging frat-boy George W., to those of the placid bin Laden and the eerily Stalin-like Hussein, all reproduced to an absurd degree, like so many cheap plastic icons. At the same time, on the screen (always the screen) are the faces of the infantrymen, smiling, waving, trudging through blistering sandstorms, wrapped head to toe in gear and weaponry. I see one face, then another, and I am keenly aware that I will probably never see those individual faces again on the screen.
These are the men who will pay the price for the seemingly wanton decisions of an administration bent on war. A U.S. flag is embroidered on each serviceman's sleeve, and it also waves in the CG wind in the corner of the screen.
What am I to make of this flag, this trademark? For one thing, it's the standard for an empire that, with the coercive force of its economy on the wane, has resorted to the old-fashioned strong arm. The flag is also, once again, the symbol of a nation bitterly divided over a foreign war.
"Today, I weep for my country," said Senior Democratic Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia in a 19 March floor speech. "I have watched the events of recent months with a heavy, heavy heart. No more is the image of America one of a strong yet benevolent peacekeeper. The image of America has changed." What is the image of America? And when did it change?
It's hard to say just what image America has projected to the world, with the administration shuffling its many reasons for attacking Iraq, and generally providing suspect arguments for those reasons. The "peacekeeper" has, at the last minute, tacked on the goal of "liberation" to the previous objectives of "disarmament" and "regime change," not to mention claims that Iraq has supplied, or might supply terrorist organizations. So, instead of an invasion, we watch Operation Iraqi Freedom, where pushing the liberation of the Iraqi people to the forefront seems more a public relations maneuver, a means to garner majority support and silence dissent.
Washington Post pollsters Richard Morin and Claudia Dean tell us that 71% of the American citizenry supports the decision to got to war. A poll conducted on March 21 shows that "more than seven in 10 endorsed the decision of President Bush to wage war on Iraq... And two out of the three said they believe Bush had worked hard enough to try to find a diplomatic solution before ordering the attack." However, in early March, Morin and Dean said of a similar poll, "The result suggests that more than six in 10 Americans harbor at least some doubts about using force while only a third are unequivocally behind going to war."
Are the numbers unreliable, or is the "public" so fickle, so easily manipulated by its leaders and their corporate media interests? In the case of the recent pro-war "Rallies for America," organized by radio conglomerate Clear Channel Worldwide Inc., and supported by ultra-conservative PAC, Free Republic, the distinction between the political and the corporate seems to collapse.
In a recent article in the Chicago Tribune, Tim Jones chronicles the work of "Rally for America," which has organized demonstrations in response to global antiwar protests. The rallies have been sponsored and organized by the monopolistic Clear Channel, the nation's largest owner of radio stations. Corporate sponsorship of these rallies is not illegal, since the repeal of the Fairness Act in 1987, an FCC ruling purposed to maintain balance in broadcasting. Nevertheless, according to former FCC chairman Glenn Robinson, quoted in the same article, this kind of political engineering sounds like "borderline manufacturing of the news." In addition to Pro-U.S.A. and anti-France signs, the rallies have featured signs condemning the Dixie Chicks, whose lead singer Natalie Maines spoke out publicly against the war in a recent London concert appearance (and who relies on Clear Channel radio stations for airplay). The "Rallies for America" have been sponsored nationwide by Clear Channel, and supported by organizations like Free Republic.
Free Republic, LLC, which has organized its own rallies, is an ultra-conservative news forum, with discussions titled "America the right way" and "Day in the life of President Bush." Free Republic ambiguously calls itself a "not for profit commercial enterprise in the sense of a traditional business." The forum responds to the antiwar movement with mean-spirited name-calling -- antiwar activists are "'useful idiot' weasels" (whatever that means) and are lumped together as "communists," despite the fact that a significant contingent of the antiwar movement is comprised of veterans and faith-based organizations.
Other, less abrasive, voices have also discouraged dissent. Joe Galloway, war reporter for Knight Ridder and author of We Were Soldiers Once... And Young (inspiration for the recent Mel Gibson Vietnam War vehicle), writes, "The time for debating the wisdom of the decision is over. The time for demonstrating in the streets of our cities is over." Contrast this statement with one from MoveOn, a not-for-profit organization that, like Free Republic, is a forum for grassroots political action, and which declares, "The outbreak of war is not the end of the fight for peace -- only the beginning."
Galloway sums up his position by writing, "Hate the war, love the troops." In this, it seems, he and MoveOn are in agreement. In an interview with Peter Jennings on Friday night (21 March), Eli Pariser, 22-year-old international campaigns director for MoveOn, made clear that the organization supports the troops, and wants to "bring them home." As it voices support for the soldiers, MoveOn has spearheaded antiwar demonstrations around the world, exactly the kind of demonstrations that Free Republic labels "communist," and that rallies organized by Free Republic and Clear Channel, are intended to counter.
When did the exercise of free speech become symptomatic of communist leanings or anti-Americanism? The calls by far-right organization Free Republic, corporate entity Clear Channel, and writer Galloway to rally round the flag sound more like calls to support the war or keep your mouth shut. Such a stance nullifies informed political debate and veers dangerously close to the bullying, nationalism, and conformity that have characterized so many repressive regimes of the past, including the soon-to-be defunct Saddam Hussein's.