Don't Wear Out Old Glory

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In the early 1990s, I attended a Washington lunch at which Admiral William Crowe, who had just retired as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, talked about taking his Soviet counterpart to visit the admiral's hometown in Oklahoma. The Russian general wanted to know what holiday was being celebrated. None, Crowe told him; his neighbors just flew the flag from their stoops as a matter of course.

Americans' strength of purpose and love of their country is based on something a lot richer than the garish patriotism that now litters our streets and airwaves.

Patriotism comes naturally to Americans. Sometimes it's gaudy, with stars and stripes painted on the faces of sports fans; sometimes it's quietly moving, sensed in the hush of the Lincoln Memorial; and sometimes it's just plain fun, a raucous combination of a marching band, a parade and the smell of hot dogs on Memorial Day. I know of nowhere else where love of country comes so easily and devoid of complication. In many other places, patriotism is best kept hidden or trotted out only on trivial occasions like soccer games. In Britain members of the intelligentsia would not be seen dead, my dear, with a Union Jack — unless it were some campy '60s relic of Carnaby Street. In France the Tricolor flies from every town hall — but I have never seen one outside my French friends' houses. If you lived through the horrors of Europe's last century, patriotic fervor is a dish that comes a little too highly seasoned with memories of nationalism, war and genocide.

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So for many immigrants (I'm one), there's something liberating about the guiltless American attitude toward patriotism. The nation's best values — freedom and tolerance — are universal; you can identify with the flag that stands for them even if your loyalties are shared. Who did not get a kick out of seeing Bono — Irish to his boots — unveil that Stars and Stripes jacket at the Super Bowl? Who doubted that when Paul McCartney sang of the "fight for the right to live in freedom," he was sincerely thanking those doing the fighting on our behalf?

Not me. But here's a confession; I winced during much of the Super Bowl show, larded with homages to the armed forces and heroes of September. Everyone sentient understands that in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks last year, an outpouring of patriotic zeal was natural, healthy and necessary. But nearly six months later, the flag seems to be even more visible. It wraps the Administration's budget; it waves at us from the crawls of the 24-hr. news networks; it's being hawked by street vendors in a hundred different pin designs. And if the initial TV coverage of the Olympics is a guide, Old Glory will be stenciled on every second snowdrift in Utah. Meanwhile, corporate America and Madison Avenue have found a new theme: Sept. 11 sells! Hence the ads that drip mawkishness like a melting candle (those Budweiser Clydesdales bowing before lower Manhattan) or, like the astonishingly crass Kenneth Cole glossy, somehow link the tragedy to soulful sex ("On September 12, fewer men spent the night on the couch...").

The exploitation of patriotic sentiment for private gain is hardly new. But the attacks were a national tragedy, one that demands a quiet determination to remember those who died. Commercializing their sacrifices is a sure way of turning the ineffable into the merely ordinary — and making something ordinary is the first step to forgetting it.

It isn't just the selling of Sept. 11 that offends me. There's also the aggression of our current patriotism, epitomized by the claim that alone among nations, the U.S. was entitled to make a political statement during the opening ceremony of the Olympics by displaying a flag from ground zero. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the courage and grace of ordinary Americans inspired millions around the world. But anyone who has traveled in the last month or who follows the foreign press knows that the store of international goodwill is fast being depleted — in part because we seem to think that others should recognize that our wounds, our needs, our flag exist on a higher plane than those of anyone else.

The simple reaction to this is: So what? It was America that was violated, and if America can heal itself only by wallowing in patriotism, what business is it of others? Yet to identify, trace and arrest terrorists, the U.S. needs the support of allies. That help will not come with good grace if Americans demand it as a matter of right. As someone once said, "If we're an arrogant nation, they'll resent us. If we're a humble nation, but strong, they'll respect us."

That was George W. Bush, speaking in a presidential debate on Oct. 11, 2000. He was right. Americans' strength of purpose and love of their country is based on something a lot richer than the garish patriotism that now litters our streets and airwaves. It is time to put out fewer flags.