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Inflating the National Value

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

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“… and a Haughty Spirit before a Fall”

Let me begin by making it clear that I did not lose a wink of sleep on Sunday evening after learning of the death of Osama bin Laden.  On the other hand, I have been deeply troubled by the numerous slide shows (e.g., here, here, and here) that have emphasized the celebration of the assassination of America’s number one “public enemy” as a matter of national pride on par with winning an Olympic sporting event (replete in television reports with video representations of ritualistic chants of “USA, USA”).  The Agon has done a pretty good job of calling out the problematic relationship between nationalism and sport as it relates to this particular event—not least the absurdity of most of those doing the celebrating as if they were the Navy Seals who actually did the job, rather like fans who claim membership in “Yankee Nation” or “Red Sox Nation” and then take the credit for their team’s good fortunes as if they actually played the game themselves.  And others have made the point that there is something problematic in celebrating the death of any individual, for as the poet put it, “every man’s death diminishes me.”  Both points are well taken, and yet there is still a different point to be made.

The photograph above moderates the announcement of victory so boldy asserted in most of the celebratory photographs by casting it in the present continuous tense: the USA is “winning.”  The ambiguity here is pronounced, for while it could be taken to mean that victory is all but inevitable, notice too that it also implies that the contest is not yet over.  That should give us pause, for as the philosopher Yogi Berra put, “it ain’t over till its over.”  But even that begs the much bigger question:  what has been won or what do we stand to win?

For some, no doubt, Osama bin Laden has been brought to justice.  And that is no small thing.  But what exactly does it mean to count that as a marker of “winning”?  In the nearly ten years since 9/11 we have sacrificed numerous civil liberties, both for ourselves and for others.  Citizens can no longer board an airplane without the risk of being “patted down” by TSA officials as if they were common criminals, and that is perhaps the least of the inconveniences we now experience as a matter of course when we travel.  Our leaders have endorsed the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” as a way of skirting the Geneva Conventions, and with it we have sacrificed a part of our humanity.  We have initiated two wars of occupation that have not only cost us the lives of nearly six thousand American troops, but countless others as well.  The financial cost (1.2 trillion dollars and counting) of these wars is primarily (if not singularly) responsible for the debt burden that our government now carries and will be passed on to future generations.  And there is no real end in sight, the death of Osama bin Laden to the contrary notwithstanding.  One can make an argument to justify each and everyone of these responses to attacks made against our nation, but in the end it is hard to imagine the result as anything but a Pyrrhic victory, let alone as a moment for haughty celebration.

Yes, Osama bin Laden is dead.  Justice has been served.  But one really has to wonder who the real winner is.

Photo Credit: Eric Thayer/Reuters.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.

 

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A Sporting Memory of 9/11

By guest corespondent Michael Butterworth:

Baseball Shoe 911.2010-09-16 at 4.10.20 PM

At first glance, this photograph may appear well-suited to NCN’s category “boots and hands.” But the cleats of Chicago Cubs outfielder Alfonso Soriano are not the real story here, or at least not primarily so.  While the foot commands our attention, the real focus is on how it directs the viewer’s gaze to the legend printed on the base: “We Shall Not Forget.”

Even the most casual observer of sports has likely noticed how commonplace such memorials have become.  The sentiment should be simple enough: 9/11 was an event of such magnitude and consequence that it is incumbent upon us to remember the things which bind us together as a nation.  And since such “binding” seems to be one of the socio-cultural functions of national sporting events, it is little surprise that  they have become the perfect vehicle for circulating such memories.

While such declarations make it clear that we should not forget, what is left unstated is exactly what we are to remember.  Note, for example, that we are not being asked to remember the actual events of 9/11 itself.  Indeed, memorials like those found in this photograph are only partially about the past; as memorializing is more often a reflection of a community’s needs in the present.  And the  present here, of course, is defined by the so-called “war on terror,” a military campaign that is now only minimally about 9/11 itself.  With this in mind, we can view “We Shall Not Forget” as it overlaps with the numerous visions of militarism that have become woven into the fabric of sports—from red, white, and blue emblazoned ball caps, to military flyovers, to museum exhibitions—and conclude that sports in the United States continue to contribute to the normalization of a problematic war.

The tragedy in this is that the photograph reminds us that it needn’t have turned out this way.  Behind Soriano’s carefully balanced cleats is the blurry image of the Miller Park outfield grass.  Baseball mythology is grounded in, among other things, the idea that the ballpark represents a pastoral sanctuary—a metaphor of the countryside that offers comfort, security, and community.  Although that mythology can be flawed, 9/11 precipitated a rare moment when the “national pastime” really did invite all Americans to participate in an imagined community, one based on genuine human needs laid bare in the wake of the terrorist attacks.

All too quickly, those initial ceremonies—of mourning, of healing, of hope—that took place in baseball stadiums in September and October of 2001, gave way to belligerent expressions of hot patriotism and militaristic vengeance.  This photograph reminds us that in the days, months, and years after 9/11 there was a more humane and less violent path available to us.  Now, just like the outfield grass in this photo, that path seems blurry and somehow out of reach.  How easily we have forgotten, after all.

Photo Credit: Jeffrey Phelps/AP Photo

Michael Butterworth is an assistant professor of communication in the School of Media and Communication at Bowling Green State University and host of The Agon, a blog on rhetoric, sport, and political culture.  Michael is also the author of the recently published Baseball and Rhetorics of Purity: The National Pastime and American Identity During the War on Terror (University of Alabama Press, 2010).  He can be contacted at mbutter@bgsu.edu.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.

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(Re)membering 9/11 in the Future

9:11 Firefighter 2010-09-14 at 8.50.34 PM

I am currently teaching a senior seminar on photojournalism and civic culture and it should come as no surprise that we have spent some time this past week discussing the ways in which photography contributes to how we remember and memorialize the most recent day of infamy in U.S. history.  After a recent class one of my students wrote with a question, wondering why it was that there are so many pictures of firefighters at ground zero and no pictures of “the Pennsylvania flight or the DC attack.”  Of course, such pictures do exist and they have had some distribution and circulation, but nevertheless the sense of the question is dead on correct: for the most part we have remembered the 9/11 attacks photographically in terms of New York City and the heroic efforts of hundreds of firefighters. The photograph above, which led off a recent slide show on 9/11 remembrance at The Big Picture offers some hints as to why.

The focal point of the photograph is the pink rose being offered by a young boy to a firefighter.  The child appears to be happy, safe and secure on his fathers shoulders; but more, his pose—cast against a cloudless, bright blue sky—suggests a return of the innocence that had been purportedly erased once and for all on that fateful day, nine years ago.  The dark pink rose, of course, is a symbol of gratitude and appreciation, and its significance here is enhanced by the fact that it is being offered backwards from a representative of a future generation to a representative of the earlier generation whose sacrifices made the present possible.  But that is not exactly right, as the offer of gratitude is not simply from one generation to another, but from a citizen to a representative of the state.  That the citizen is cast as a pre-adolescent child is very much to the point as it prefigures the parental role of the state.  And therein perhaps lies one of the reasons why the firefighter has become such an iconic representation of 9/11, as well as why we see so few pictures of the assault on the Pentagon.  Although no one is to blame, images of a successful sneak attack against the nation’s premiere citadel hardly inspires confidence in the ability of the state to protect its citizenry; by the same token, the New York City firefighters more than rose to the task in responding to an attack against a public site.

But there is more going on in this photograph than an allegory of parens patria.  And to see what you need to look more closely at the deep background, shot in soft focus, that blends the vivid blue sky with erection of  the new tower.  That the emergent tower is aligned with the child, and thus identified with a bright future is not incidental, but the bigger point is that the landscape background serves to frame the events on the ground.  The effect of that framing is to redirect our remembrances of 9/11 away from a narrative of trauma and loss and towards an unreflexive and over weaning pride—one might even say hubris— in our ability to rebuild and reconstruct, a point underscored throughout the slide show (e.g., here, here, here, and here), but emphasized elsewhere as well, as with photographs such as this one of a father and son appearing to admire the construction site for the new World Trade Center.

Father and Son Ground Zero 2010-09-14 at 11.58.34 PM

The full implications of conflating remembrance (of the past) with rebuilding (the future) are a bit unclear, but they are also somewhat unsettling. Emphasizing the trope of “rebuilding” no doubt draws attention to Ground Zero more than to other sites of 9/11 memory, and in that sense it might help to explain why we see so relatively few photographs from Pennsylvania or Washington D.C, where there are no easily recognizable rebuilding projects.  But it should also lead us to notice a potential shift in attention away from the firefighter as hero to the construction worker, and by extension from the state to the private sector. That shift is underscored by the fact that the new tower, originally identified  as “Freedom Tower,” has more recently been dubbed “One World Trade Center,” almost as if to shed its connection with the world of state politics and to locate it back in the world of capital and commerce.  And what better site for that than New York City?  And so it is that the two photographs above seem to work in close tandem with one another: in the first the child must turn around awkwardly to address the firefighter who, it turns out, is barely in the frame, seemingly fading into the past and perhaps soon to be forgotten altogether, or remembered as little more than a relic of a distant time and place; in the second image, father and son comfortably cast the gaze of multiple generations ahead to the future.

It made me recall the words of George Santayana.  Not just his prophecy that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” but also that “Those who speak most of progress measure it by quantity and not quality.”

Photo Credit: CHang Lee/AP Photo; Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

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