Echoes of Patriotism Looking Back and Going Forward in America by Shannon Floyd
December, 2002 I wrote this article one year ago and much has happened in the meantime. A drizzly uncomfortable winter has passed, along with the birth of my child in the spring, a sweet Oregon summer, one demonstration against the Bush administration that went haywire, one march for peace that went beautifully, a U.S. attack on Afghanistan, another planned for Iraq, and the USA Patriot Act rammed through. Looking back makes my head spin. And yet I find it valuable too to feel again the shock and uncertainty of last fall. I still find a sense of being on the edge waiting for a new catastrophe, but the initial shock has subsided an inch or two beneath the routines and habits of daily life.
A slightly different emphasis arises for me out of this piece of writing, like a new harmony I can hear more clearly now that I am accustomed to the melody. The value of dissent in a time of violence and muddy priorities continues to sing for me, more strongly and in a more fragile way— now that I look at the world around me as the home of my daughter as well as of myself. But now I am reminded of how lucky and proud I am to live in Portland, Oregon, where freaks and feral streetkids walk around side by side with business executives and budding chefs, where hopelessness has not suffocated hopefulness, and idealism expresses itself publicly in unexpected ways.
December, 2001 I carried home my green curry on the bus, covering the bag with my fedora in hopes of keeping the smell—that wonderful, strong smell—from driving all my neighbors crazy. In addition to the pleasure of eating it, I’m hoping for some of the magical curative properties the green curry is said to hold. My head is congested, dripping, about to explode. It’s been this way off and on for over a month—just as I think it’s gone away, it comes back. Change of the season most definitely, but also perhaps the change of current events. I’m feeling allergic to war.
I was sitting in Thai Peacock waiting for my food and listening to the radio overhead. I forget the song that was on when I came in, but next up was Bette Midler singing “From a Distance.” It’s a song I sort of want to turn up my nose at, but I can’t help liking it and being touched by what sounds like real faith. No one was in the restaurant besides me, the two young men waiting tables and a woman a little older than myself—probably a cook––who came and went. So I let myself hum along through the foggy cotton in my head.
I was unprepared for the jolt I got in the second or third verse, when she sings, “From a distance you look like my friend, even though we are at war. From a distance I cannot comprehend just what all this fighting’s for.” It was not these words alone that rushed me with grief and made tears run down my face in this mostly empty restaurant. The words merely brought back to me the thought of an emailed article I received today telling this story: a baby opens his mouth and into it a soldier puts a gun, and as the baby starts to suck on the gun as if it could provide nourishment, the soldier pulls the trigger. I didn’t read much past that—I was too angry at having that image thrust upon me. Five months pregnant, I felt violated and angry at the “peace activist” who had sent me such an emotional landmine. Blaming the messenger feels good when there’s no one else to blame. The point of the article—this much I did get—was that the soldier was part of the Northern Alliance, our “friends” in Afghanistan. No good guys in war, and perhaps particularly not with the people we—the U.S. government—usually ally with.
I got it together enough to pay my tab, and then wanted to stop and howl on the way to the bus. But wanted to get home more. I found a seat halfway back and, as we wound our way through Northeast Portland, I watched out the window and the flags came at me.
I can’t escape the sight of the American flag. Now, I am in general no fan of the flag, accompanying in my mind too many missions of destruction. But on the other hand, I understand the love of country, the sense of belonging, the cozy togetherness of being wrapped up in the flag. The wearing of the red, white and blue is the sweet side of patriotism, the non-thorny side of the rose.
It doesn’t bother me as much when worn by an individual person—it may be jingoistic and manipulated, but it is the symbol of faith in a greater good.
But the sight of the flag coming to me where I somehow least expect it—on the uniforms of NBA players, on the sides of city buses, and hanging from the spotlit façade of the Rose Garden —these just seem like signs of mob mentality, like institutional cynicism, like hedging bets in an unstable world. Corporate protestations of patriotism make me angry.
Their message falls flat when there’s no self visible behind the symbol—whose is the individual heart and mind behind this love of country? CEOs, Boards, Shareholders? This worship of the flag combines the worst in its manner—public advertisements trying to sell us more trucks—with the worst in content—a self-righteous support of American comfort, American economic domi-nation, and of course American military action. If the medium is the message, what is a $10 million television commercial touting the American way of life (from a company whose production lines are mainly in Indonesia or Mexico) telling us?
And the questions keep coming. Why is it that killing (our own or others) should bring out more faith in our country than living side by side in peace? Maybe because it needs to be defended. And why should those in the undertow be so willing to go along? Like an abused child running to protect the one who hits them, it is often those who will suffer most from this war and its aftershocks who support it most fervently: people whose relatives serve in the Armed Forces, workers who receive pink slips while their companies receive bailouts.
Why do people believe against all evidence? We believe because faith is as necessary as air or water, but we are free to choose the terms of that faith, a freedom that is hard to grasp. And with that freedom comes also a responsibility, does it not?, to make the elements and results of our faith harmonize with the realities of the world we live in. This applies to no area of faith more than patriotism.
There are as many reasons for waving a flag these days as there are people who wave them. Some who put up the flag do so out of fear, an extra-urgent need to show loyalty. Of all the businesses on SW Morrison Street, it is the immigrant-owned businesses who have taped small flag images to their windows. Their patriotism cannot be assumed now, but must be overt. It is also possible that the perspective of a hard-fought immigration is required to fully appreciate the beauty and the frailty of this place and its patchwork democracy.
On the other end of the spectrum is the person who scratched FUCK USA on the glass front of the USA Today box I pass each morning. I am guessing it was a teenage street kid, probably white and male; there’s no way to know. But what a message, so tangible and angry, to lay on top of the day’s government-approved war headlines! “Bush says freedom will prevail.” FUCK USA. “American jets begin airstrikes in Afghanistan.” FUCK USA. “Anthrax threat hits Capitol Hill.” FUCK USA. You get the picture. Very surreal. And yet not, in my opinion, totally unpatriotic. You have to care to make even a crude protest.
Everyone’s patriotism, everyone’s faith in what is, or could be, good and right in this country is boiling to the top. My fear of symbol worship—that we will be caught staring at the finger pointing at the moon, missing the moon altogether—cascades over my day confronting flags. Please God, I pray in my own bout of patriotism: let us not confuse destruction of others with protection of ourselves; let us not mix up loyalty to America with obedience to Bush; and above all don’t let us forget the deep, harsh and valuable ideal of freedom for which our flag so imperfectly stands.
Shannon Floyd is a writer, political administrator, and activist on peace and drug policy issues. She lives in NE Portland with her husband and daughter, and can be reached at [email protected]