One of the more successful cases of symbol capture in my lifetime is the Republican Party’s wrapping itself in the flag. Of course, the Left gave it away and then had to seethe in frustration while watching it used to set records in hypocrisy. But what credibility did they have when it came to the flag itself? That monopoly is fading however, down to Fox News and MSNBC sputtering about whether Barack Obama is wearing a flag pin. (He is. Feel better?) This decline in faux patriotism may be another side-effect of the Bush years, not that they have caught on:
There are thousands of these shots, but this one seems particularly offensive. This is the guy who had “other priorities” than serving in the Vietnam War but no qualms about sending other young men to die in the sequel of his own making. The arrogant sneer seems just right, a moment of truth revealing this administration’s cynical use of the flag–and the troops–as props. They are props in two senses of the word: devices for staging a show, and supports for something that would collapse of its own bad weight otherwise.
The image caught my attention because it demonstrates a principle of symbolic action. The basic idea is that when you see excessive display, it often is compensating for some lack. When we raise our voice, it often is not because we have the better argument. Excessive make-up can be a response to a lack of skill in a preteen or a lack of self-esteem at any age. If we go on too long, it may be because we have so little to say. Getting back to the photograph, if the administration displays not one flag but seven (and counting), it may be not because they have a surplus of patriotism and demonstrated commitment to the common good, but because there is so little evidence of those civic virtues in their policies.
For a sense of contrast, consider this image:
This flag is flying near Belle Fourche, South Dakota. The town has the distinction of being the geographical center of the nation. We see one flag, not seven, and it is a worn flag, not the imperial banners behind Cheney. Most important, it wasn’t put up there to prop up anyone. Think of it more as an act of homage, something done because it felt right, not because it would play well. The frayed edges tell us that it’s been there awhile, taking a beating from the wind but still standing as someone’s testament to their love of country. And so the principle works in both directions: when an act of display shows signs of being ragged and worn, it can be a sign of some larger fullness. What looks like a simple gesture in an all but empty place may be something much bigger. Not just the center, but the heart of the nation.
FYI to our readers: I posted on Belle Fourche recently, and this second post is something of an atonement for a mistake made at that time. If you read to comments to that post, you’ll see what I mean. Thus, this second post is another demonstration of the relationship between excess and deficiency, a dynamic that endlessly fuels language and culture.
Photographs by Seth Wenig/Associated Press and Angel Franco/New York Times.