One Nation, Under a Groove
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A few years ago, I covered a drug-policy movement conference where a leading antiprohibition activist demanded that participants recite the Pledge of Allegiance, arguing that we had to learn not to alienate Middle America. If saluting the flag made us uncomfortable, he said, we should think about why it did.
I was uncomfortable.
It reminded me of being in high school during the Vietnam War, where being a peace creep was punishable by either nebulous official sanctions or jock goons ready to pummel your unpatriotic faggot head into the lockers. The football coach recruited 10 of them to stand guard around the flagpole the morning after the Kent State killings in 1970. (We didn't want to burn the flag; we thought it should be at half-mast, and maybe upside down for distress.)
And flag-waving is often the symbol for the notion of the USA as global imperial bully, like the sticker I saw on an elephant-sized SUV in San Francisco, behind the plastic Stars and Stripes clipped to the right rear window: "Nuke Their Ass, Take Their Gas."
If you did that to a gas station, it would be called armed robbery and murder.
OK, OK, I know, I know. We have to reclaim the flag and patriotism from the right wing. What America is really about is closer to our values than to theirs. We are the nation of "inalienable rights," "malice toward none," "give me your tired, your poor" and "I have a dream"; of Stonewall and la huelga , not of the Dred Scott decision, napalm, union-busting and J. Edgar Hoover.
"That's what America is," Harvey Milk orated on Gay Pride Day 1978 in San Francisco. "Love it or leave it."
Maybe. As racist as America is, it still has an official ideal of encompassing all kinds of people. My relatives who came here from Poland and Russia before 1935 all died natural deaths. The ones who didn't got defoliated from the family tree with Zyklon B gas and cruder methods. (On the other hand, the US State Department blocked admitting Holocaust refugees.)
Plus, growing up here makes you inescapably American. The only '60s soccer player I know is Pele, but I can still name almost the entire roster of the 1969 New York Mets. I own a Fender Telecaster guitar (the same color as Bruce Springsteen's) and blue Levis. I've danced to St. Louis blues and New Orleans jazz, gotten stuck in traffic on the Long Island Expressway and the Hollywood Freeway, smoked reefer in the redwood forests of Humboldt County and by the Gulf Stream waters in Texas, picked guitar in North Carolina mountain hollows and pumped bass in Michigan car-factory cities. I love the land, and I believe--perhaps with naive optimism--that most of the people aren't assholes.
I'm still uncomfortable.
Is the Confederate flag a symbol of Southern pride, of grits, courtliness, William Faulkner and Lynyrd Skynyrd; or of slavery, segregation, and lynching? Is "liberty and justice for all" an ideal or a propagandistic lie? It's hard to separate. (And I feel like much less of an alien in a Mexican border city, where the food, music and language aren't that much different from a Latino neighborhood in New York, than I do amid the Wal-Marts and theme-park restaurants along I-35 in Texas, surrounded by SUVs bearing "Bush-Cheney '04" stickers.)
Nationalism inevitably carries racism within it. In the 19th century, European anti-Semites called Jews "rootless cosmopolitans," alien scum lacking the mystic bond to blood and soil. The belief in the mystic supremacy of blood-and-soil nationality is the toxic dirt that grew Wounded Knee, Auschwitz, Sabra and Shatila, and 57 varieties of Middle East terrorism. "Insensibly there was built up in the German mind a conception of Germany and its emperor," H.G. Wells wrote of the 1871-1914 Prussian empire, "as of something splendid and predominant as nothing else had ever been before, a godlike nation in 'shining armor,' brandishing the 'good German sword' in a world of inferior--and badly disposed--peoples."
I do not pledge allegiance to the ruling-class beasts of any nation. I have more in common with the rockeros of Buenos Aires, the anarchists of Italy, the "clued-up working class" of Britain, my sister-in-law's cousins in Ecuador. I pledge allegiance to the human race, to everyone from Bangladesh to Uganda who wants to make the world a better place, not to the billionaire thugs demanding blind obeisance to their divine dominion.
Still, who is more unpatriotic? A set of rulers who defile the Bill of Rights, the nation's most sacred political document, or the people who protest against those rulers? This is our America too, the one of Muddy Waters and Johnny Cash; Sitting Bull and Allen Ginsberg; Patti Smith and Tito Puente; Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs, and Fannie Lou Hamer. I hope that John Coltrane and Joey Ramone are remembered when Jesse Helms and Rudy Giuliani molder in the dustbin of ancient bigots.
Maybe changing the flag might be a good thing, like turning the stripes to the Gilbert Baker gay-pride rainbow. (There's a hip-hop clothing company in South Carolina that sells T-shirts with the Confederate stars and bars rendered in red, black, and green.) On the other hand, this is about as likely to fly politically as telling a hardcore Zionist that the Jewish state should have been set up in East Germany instead of in Palestine. So you want me to salute the flag? Make it out of hemp. Print the First Amendment on it in English and Spanish, next to pictures of Chuck Berry and Woody Guthrie. And change "one nation under God" to "one nation under a groove."
Steven Wishnia is the author of "Exit 25 Utopia," "The Cannabis Companion" and "Invincible Coney Island." He lives in New York.