By lex, on September 12th, 2010
The flags were back on the streets of my neighborhood yesterday. Not quite so many as back in 2001, when it seemed that every house on my street wore a flag. But more than usual, these latter days – many more.
In 2001, flying the colors seemed a symbol of unity, pride and yes: Determination. Around 2004, they started coming down. A few at first, cautiously. Then more and more, especially after 2006. Some were replaced by multi-colored ambiguities. Others by college banners, or sports team. There is Czech flag that flies on my street now. Across the way there flies Canada’s Maple Leaf.
My own stayed up until it was embarrassingly threadbare and faded by the California sunshine. I took it down, furled it with reverence, always meaning to replace it. About 10 months ago I did, with a Navy Jack. It isn’t the same thing as a Gadsen Flag, now associated with the Tea Party movement, and I didn’t wear it for them, although I often wondered what the neighbors thought. I live in Southern California, after all.
Ben Franklin wrote about the snake that both banners bear, along with the words that underlie them – “Don’t Tread on Me” – bearing fair warning:
I recollected that her eye excelled in brightness, that of any other animal, and that she has no eye-lids—She may therefore be esteemed an emblem of vigilance.—She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage.—As if anxious to prevent all pretensions of quarreling with her, the weapons with which nature has furnished her, she conceals in the roof of her mouth, so that, to those who are unacquainted with her, she appears to be a most defenseless animal; and even when those weapons are shewn and extended for her defense, they appear weak and contemptible; but their wounds however small, are decisive and fatal:—Conscious of this, she never wounds till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of treading on her.—Was I wrong, Sir, in thinking this a strong picture of the temper and conduct of America?
The Jack carries thirteen stripes, representing each of the thirteen colonies in rebellion against tyranny. From the bicentennial until 2001 it was worn by the oldest ship of the fleet still on active duty, rather than the standard jack, 50 white stars on a field of blue. Independence wore the first jack when I was a lieutenant commander, and forward deployed. In 2001, the country went to war, and the Secretary of the Navy ordered all ships to wear the first jack. They wear them still. And now, having retired from active service, my house wears it too.
Nine years ago the Ad Council repeatedly ran a video labeled “I am an American” on every channel as we sought to come to grips with what had happened to us, and why. It was a proud and multi-hued affirmation of our grounding ethos, “E Pluribus Unum”: Out of many, one. After our country was viciously attacked, our president repeatedly assured us that we were not at war with Islam, but with a radicalized, politically-motivated subset of that faith, and we wanted to believe him, practically all of us. We were indeed one, from many.
Over nine years, divisions arose, seeded by doubts, suspicions of over-reach, mistrust, and bad faith. Divisions were sown, spurred by partisans seeking momentary leverage. In 2010 another president sought again to assure us that we were not at war with Islam. But in the intervening space we have become many from one, and are perhaps nowhere more divided than on the issue of Islam, radical or otherwise. What it means, and how far it extends. We are tying ourselves in tortuous knots trying to discern how to balance our cherished foundational value of tolerance against a nagging fear that we are instead giving over to a faith that enables intolerance, at least in the worst of its adherents.
Only the strong can afford to be tolerant – it is not merely a virtue, but a proud symbol of excellence. So we struggle to not deprive ourselves of that which both makes us great and affirms our greatness, while entertaining fears that something incompatible with the rest of our freedoms is attempting to wrest them from us, not with the sword but by degree. Knowing all along that this is not us, this suspicion, fear and smallness of character. But it’s been nine years, and we are weary of it, all of it.
Nine years is a long time to be at war, even though the direct weight of that conflict is born by an embarrassingly small percentage of our people. In nine years we have learned things we did not know, seen things that we cannot un-see, come to take as commonplace the incomprehensible. My sixteen year old daughter has few recollections of a time when her country was not at war, this in an era when conflict is not something utterly remote, but whose immediacy is thrust upon us by mass communications.
We have cast our eyes across the water, looking to the old country from some hint at what awaits us as we too grow old, and what we have seen there has given us pause, where it has not alarmed us. We have seen soldiers and officers of the Republic who had sworn an oath to God, their God – “without mental reservation or purpose of evasion” – turn their weapons upon their own countrymen. We have learned things we had rather not know from those whose only purpose appears to be instructing us. We have been told things we would like to believe whose only purpose appears to be self-serving obfuscation. We have been treated to an endless series of “yes, but” equivocations by apologists trotted out to serve for us as voices of moderation. We have nodded our heads as our politicians tell us necessary, comforting lies, hoping to see them made true as we wonder by what form of alchemy this can be achieved.
My physical therapist emigrated from Jordan 22 years ago, and became a naturalized citizen some years afterward. He is a kind and jovial man, an excellent technician who has much relieved the pain that was bothering me. As he does his work we talk lightly about sports and hobbies, more seriously about our families. Like me, he is trying to make do, earn his living, pay his taxes. Like me, he wonders how his children will make it through the world. Unlike me, he is a Muslim, and even as I enjoy his company and appreciate his ministrations, I find myself wondering what he thinks about all of this in his heart of hearts. And I hate that in myself.
But not, nine years on, as much as I hate those who made this possible, even necessary.
It’s been a long time, but we are still at war. Outside my house the Jack is still flying.
A kind Providence has placed in our breasts a hatred of the unjust and cruel, in order that we may preserve ourselves from cruelty and injustice. They who bear cruelty, are accomplices in it. The pretended gentleness which excludes that charitable rancour, produces an indifference which is half an approbation. They never will love where they ought to love, who do not hate where they ought to hate. –Edmund Burke