Friday, August 26, 2016

Even More Flags

A scene in a British comedy film from probably the 1950s or ‘60s*: The location is a movie theater (I guess I should write “theatre”) on whose screen the last images of the film are fading away. Suddenly, the patrons jump to their feet and make a mad rush to the exits—until the recorded strains of “God Save the Queen” freeze the less fleet of foot in their tracks.
*
The Olympic games have gone, and with them their usual cornucopia of Kitsch, Nazi-iconography, cheating, biased judging, and out-of-water stupidity (stand up, Ryan Lochte!). With the addition this year of the manufactured outrage at American gymnast Gabby Douglas’ non-placing of her hand over her heart during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”** 

I have watched zillions of international sporting events and observed that members of some national teams all do the hand-on-heart bit, while on other teams, it’s laissez faire, some team members do, others don’t. Same with the singing of national anthems (except for the Spanish teams—there are no words to their national anthem). Not that the more ostentatious displays of patriotism equate to better athletic performance. Joe Hart, goalkeeper of choice for the England national team at Euro 2016, stood out for his boisterous warbling of “God Save the Queen," but his indifferent play at the tournament has led to his being sat down by his club, Manchester City (and quite possibly, by the end of this month, shown—if not rushed to—the door of the club). 
*
Patriotism may (or may not) be “the last refuge of the scoundrel,” as Dr. Johnson proclaimed. But coercive patriotism is the blood sport of nationalistic heresy-sniffers. Consider, for example, the time the Boston police barred one of the greatest of 20th-century composers, Igor Stravinsky, from conducting his arrangement of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Carly Carioli relates the story:
During World War I, the Massachusetts Legislature had narrowly passed Chapter 264, Section 9, which prohibits the performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as dance music, as part of a medley, or with “embellishment.” And now the officers were apparently ready to arrest Stravinsky on the spot if the conductor attempted to perform his version of the anthem. “Let him change it just once,” one reporter quoted [Captain Thomas J. Harvey, head of the police department’s “Radical Squad”] as saying, “and we’ll grab him.”
A half-hour before curtain, Boston police officers visited Stravinsky backstage and threatened to remove the sheet music from the music stands.***

Stravinsky bowed to the threat and conducted the Boston Symphony's usual version of the anthem. Carioli continues:
Shortly after the conclusion of the anthem, but before the rest of the program, Captain Harvey and his squad of would-be music critics got up and “stalked out indifferently,” according to the [Boston] Post.

It didn't matter to the radical chasers that there was no official version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
*
I wonder if Stravinsky could have gotten away with conducting his arrangement had he shown up with an American flag pinned to his lapel. Were he around today, he could take advantage of this offer from Fahrney's Pens:

I, myself, will not be enticed. I don't need to wear that pin to be patriotic.

As Hamlet says about external displays of internal feelings:
'Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected 'havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly: these indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play:
But I have that within which passeth show. . .

Act I, Scene 2 [My Emphasis]

Besides, how would it look on my t-shirt that reads: “I Don't Got To Show You No Stinkin Badges”?
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*The Smallest Show on Earth possibly?

**For the record—I never place my hand over my heart.





Thursday, August 4, 2016

Up The Flagpole

(Used by Evelyn Waugh as the epigraph to his novel Put Out More Flags)
***
Are you currently wearing a flag pin?
Yes? Then you love America.
No? Hmm. That's gonna be a problem.
Gilbert Cruz*
*
It was apparently President Richard Nixon who inaugurated the practice of wearing an American flag tchochke as lapel d├ęcor. And it was a consciously political act, an attempt to co-opt the grand symbol of the United States to connote support for his administration's actions as being the essence of Americanism. In the decades since Nixon's fall, it has become a necessary cover-your-ass talisman for politicians to avoid being perceived as not loving your country enough.


***

Eight years before the New Yorker published Dana Fradon's cartoon in 1969 (Nixon was president), Joseph Heller in his novel Catch-22 depicted the intimidating hollowness of coerced loyalty. Captain Black's Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade made “each man sign a loyalty oath before allowing him to fly on a combat mission” or even to eat in the mess hall:
[There was] a wall of officers waiting in line to sign loyalty oaths. At the far end of the food counter, a group of men who had arrived earlier were pledging allegiance to the flag, with trays of food balanced in one hand, in order to be allowed to take seats at the table. Already at the tables, a group that had arrived still earlier was singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" in order that they might use the salt and pepper and ketchup there.
***
(Brendan Gill, The New Yorker, Nov. 22, 1969)

It was an understandable (and cunningly deceptive) ploy at the time of Gill's review, when foreign cars were mounting their formidable attack on Detroit's dinosaurs, that the largest American flags flying along any town's automobile row were on the sites of foreign-car dealers. But the spread of American-flag-itis in the subsequent decades has become, I don't know, absurd? laughable? or what? In the very heart of American capitalism—the New York Stock Exchange—we find these floor traders fending off accusations of Bolshevism:

And we couldn't have un-American backboards in the National Basketball Association, could we?
***
But back to the lapel scrutiny. Gilbert Cruz states,
Short of wearing a stars and stripes onesie, the flag lapel pin is the quickest sartorial method for a politician to telegraph his or her patriotism.
Although that “stars and stripes onesie” sounds like a great patriotic idea, our politicians might be able to go one step further and bedeck themselves like empty-headed Bubble (Jane Horrocks) in “Absolutely Fabulous”:

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*http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1820023,00.html

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Update--August 7, 2016

From the New Yorker,  Jan. 17, 1970: