I expected to see a lot of U.S. flags on display for the 9/11 anniversary and commemoration this past weekend. And of course my expectations were fully met with ersatz versions of the Stars and Stripes represented in virtually every size and variety imaginable, ranging from lapel pins to newly inked tattoos and decorated cakes to a flag the size of a football field requiring hundreds of people to manage its presentation. What I didn’t expect to see were three thousand flags clustered together in one place, as in the photograph above of Forest Park in St. Louis (and repeated in other places across the country as well).
I don’t think of myself as a curmudgeon in such matters and I do pledge allegiance to the flag on the appropriate occasions, but I also find the excess of display in the photograph above as more than just a spectacle of national hubris. Rather, it strikes me as symptomatic of a larger cultural problematic. The flag, of course, is a national symbol. And it means many different things to many different people, affecting the full gambit of civic emotions from patriotic piety to nostalgia to cynicism. But the question is, what do three thousand flags represent that a single flag cannot stand in for? Or perhaps more to the point, given the presumed gravity that we commonly grant to the meaning of the flag as the national banner–that which marks us as “one nation, indivisible,” and for which we are willing to sacrifice all–how can they represent it better?
One might see the field of flags as symbolic of the actual fatalities on 9/11, but the numbers don’t quite add up, with the official casualty count just short of three thousand, and so the potential for the mystique of identification with individual victims is not satisfied. But even if the numbers did add up, the question would still abide in some measure for the massive replication and concentration of flags in a single space has something of an inflationary effect on the symbolic currency of the national icon. And there, I think, is the rub. For there is little doubt that the symbolic value of the flag has diminished in recent years in proportion to the diminution of our domestic and international stature. The multiplication of flags in such huge numbers thus perhaps functions as something of a symbolic palliative for our current psychic anxieties about national greatness. We simply need more flags to fund our national urge.
What the photograph reminds us is that as with the effects of inflation on the dollar, the flag simply doesn’t buy as much as it used to. And more, that at some deep level we know that but don’t want to admit it.
Photo Credit: J.B. Forbes/AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch
And since one cannot look at the flag critically without risk of being branded as un-American, it remains perhaps THE loyalty test for nationalists. The 3000 number bothers me because of the erasure it creates. 372 of the 9/11 dead were foreign nationals. some 12%, yet almost unanimously 9/11 politics invokes the 3000 American dead (I saw Biden catch himself on this a few weeks ago, first time I’ve seen anybody correct themselves). The dead came from all over the world, many from the middle-east (the number does not include the hijackers) but in total from around 70 countries. Once you plant those flags, however, the dead are all Americans because then we are the only victims, and who wants to share that plum role. But further, I think it also is a way to silence critics-from-abroad of American foreign policy–it’s “our” loss so whatever we do is in the interest of self-preservation. Ach. The “never again” and “never forget” phrasing that mimics Shoah sloganeering acts, I think on one level, as a premise for justifying policy on a raw emotional level while simultaneously containing the event so we don’t have to really think about how American policy is implicated in the attack and so we can continue on in a relatively mindless state of consumptive bliss and political turmoil.
Awesome point, John! These sorts of display of patriotic excess was visible across the U.S. this last weekend. Two poignant examples include the flag-layings in Louisville and even our own Dunn Meadow. The flags in the case of the former were also arranged so that from an aerial perspective, the flags spelled out USA.
John: I liked your connection between the flag and the dollar. Very clever!
The way the photograph positions the viewer seems significant to me. You are standing among the flags as opposed to standing at a distance and looking at (or pledging allegiance to) a single flag. I have not decided what to make of this yet, but I will let it keep marinating.
To me, one of the first features of this photo that struck me was not only the many flags, but the hazy low lying “cloud” which seems a bit eerie to me in the fact that it reminded me of the haze cloud following the complete leveling of those towers. It seems to me we are symbolic of the multiple flag gesture to comfort ourselves, yes. Even though it is stated that roughly 70 countries might total the nationality of the victims of this horrific tragedy, this happened in America. I am rethinking the amount of flags that were created to celebrate this “never forget” gesture, with the current state of economy. The supply vs demand will always prevail, maybe those flags (made in the USA, I pray) helped to boost a few jobs and help americans out just a little? The reality of 9/11 not only projected in the amount of flags created to offer respect to our service members, the firefighters and policemen at the World Trade towers…. but also those who ran the cockpit on Flight 93 (regardless of what nationality they were) they literally sacrificed to STOP the plane from hitting a potential government building. The major news channels concentrated on the sad historical event, as appropriate 10 years later. I chose to watch the History Channel all day. I did cry and listened to the stories of all the individuals (some barely spoke English), the common grief /horror is unmistakable. We are a melting pot, we are America and I support the flag making and representation. This tragedy happened here.
Harlyn: I think David makes a very good point about the way in which we romanticize 9/11 as a fundamentally American tragedy, but that was not my point. Indeed, I’m not particularly troubled by the fact that we are flying the flag on this occasion, at least not per se. My concern is the way in which we fetishize the flag–here 3,000 flags when, really, one might do the job–as a way of covering over our psychic anxieties about how weak we have become as a country in the intervening years. It is as if we shout “America is great!” or “American is a beacon of liberty and freedom!” loud enough and long enough it will become so. But it just ain’t so. I would agree with you that this is importantly an American tragedy, but not because it took place on American “soil” or because it was American “blood” that was spilt; its an American tragedy because we have not yet learned or acknowledged the larger lessons of that fateful day. And the flag marches on.