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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Osama Killed by Obama: What Does American Patriotism Stand For?

On the day after Osama was killed by Obama, people in the American states were united in a feeling of pride for their union. Midway through a run at sunset, I paused beneath an American flag. I was caught not out of breath but by the distinct snapping sound of lazy flapping noises as the flag rolled in the light breeze. I looked up and stared at the red, white and blue performing its series of rolls. The fabric was much more alive than that stiff, wired flag still on the surface of the moon. A flag is meant to be alive—literally carried along as troops advance on a battlefield. Today’s flags hanging off still poles next to restaurants and car dealerships can hardly capture the dynamic energy of victory. To be sure, such victory was hinted at the night before as people ran hither and dither carrying flags in celebration outside the White House. It had struck me in watching the joyous scene how rare such clear-cut victories are.  It is a pity that some enemy must die for such clarity to be celebrated in a spirit of unity.

Looking up at sunset at the American flag—a symbol that has seemingly always been around—I wondered what it really stands for. What values cling most firmly to it?—nevermind the principles that are formally entailed in it. Turning to look at the auto business sponsoring the flag, I noticed a large sign displayed high up across one of the building’s walls above the repair garage: “Free Courtesy Cars for Customers with Select Insurance Companies.” My mind instantly leapt to “Free health-care for citizens with select health insurance only”—the others don’t get any. Is monetary-based exclusion the American way? What does that flag say about those who are not among the select? Is the red, white and blue referring to people living here who have money—the others just sort of existing here as though permanent aliens?

As my eyes were about to go back up the flag pole, I noticed that between tree trunks the naked sun was just about to touch the ground. Heaven would meet earth for a split-second before the ground ate into the perfect circle. I thought of Ben Franklin’s comment at the end of the U.S. constitutional convention in 1787 as he was wondering aloud whether the sun painted on the back of the presider’s chair was rising or setting. It would be ironic if on the day after a great military victory I associated the setting orange disc with the bright colors waving above me; something about the “select insurance companies” wording on the wall of the sponsoring company was giving me a proclivity to do just that, even as I felt a sense of pride in my eyes being drawn to the power in the movements of the giant fabric above me.

After my run, I briefly spoke with an auto-plant worker visiting from Michigan. He had been watching the Detroit Tigers play the Yankees.  He was disappointed in his team because even with a $200 million payroll, they had lost to Minnesota (I think). Of course, the Yankee organization knew how to put out the money to buy talent. The Tiger fan put it more bluntly. “The Yankees buy championships.” For a fan to reduce baseball teams to their payrolls seemed odd to me. Do fans in other regions of the world reduce sport to money, or is there something distinctly American about it? Whereas in Europe player captains receive championship trophies, team owners tend to get the honor in America. Clearly, a subtle difference in the value of wealth (and money as a motivator) distinguishes the United States from the European Union. Might wealth itself be what America is known for as a society?—a people obsessed with valuing money?

Can we go so far, moreover, as to conclude that the American flag stands for money? If so, did the patriotism evinced in the wake of Osama’s death reduce to dollars and cents? The political uncertainty that comes with terrorism is unquestionably bad for business. Even so, the sense of justice achieved through the execution—we could not even risk a trial—stood on the principle of an eye for an eye. Money, it could be said, was put in the service of a normative debt to be paid for the loss of innocent lives even though they could never be retrieved. However, it is difficult to see how the patriotism evinced reduces to greed.

So what does the American flag really exude? Patriotic confidence? An in-crowd based on wealth? Perhaps some other set of values that can only be observed from a distance? What does the diverse empire of fifty republics united in an extended republic stand for? Is there a common denominator or is the patriotism of victory an artificial construction based on convenience?  I suspect that these questions will go unanswered until or unless Americans are called on to sacrifice, for it may be that the value of self-denial is too far removed from what the flag has come to represent.