Take Back the Stars and the Stripes
IN AUGUST OF 2002, the Bush Administration set up a task force called the White House Iraq Group. WHIG, as it would come to be known, would serve an important role in leading the conversation of the community. Their function was, in coalition with the mass media, to sell the war in Iraq to the American public. Using well-respected news sources such as the New York Times, they exploited phrases such as “mushroom cloud,” which were coined by a New York Times journalist. They knew that if they mimicked the largest news source with the most readers, individuals who dared to question their authority would be labeled as disloyal.
Using these tactics, WHIG was able to redefine what it means to be a patriot. A substantial number of flags were hung up all over the country: in large and small cities, as well as rural and suburban neighborhoods. Houses and vehicles that were dressed in the stars and stripes were a part of a larger community movement against terrorism. This wave of patriotism fell not too long after the attacks of September 11th, when United States citizens were shocked and vulnerable. WHIG used this wave of patriotism to increase the gap between supporters and dissidents, and write off scrutiny as disloyalty. Because the flag and “true patriotism” supported WHIG and their statements, journalists of major news sources were afraid to even raise questions about the integrity of WHIG statements.
But Knight Ridder of the Washington Post wouldn’t let authority extinguish the possibility of a counter argument. He pursued the other side, raising questions and investigating the evidence used to declare the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He pointed out the irrelevance of 9/11 to Iraq and Saddam Hussein, and used sources in the Middle East to expose Saddam’s “control freak” ruling style. Mr. Ridder demonstrated that this ruling style would never allow Al-Qaeda, a foreign organization, to step foot in Iraq, contrary to the statements made by the Bush Administration. However, despite the efforts of Mr. Ridder, the Post continually printed hundreds of stories on the front page supporting the administration, and placed his articles on the 18th page, and further back in the newspaper. Information was suppressed in light of the fear of being considered disloyal in the national wave of patriotism. When considering patriotism in our nation’s contemporary history, it is important to know where it originated. (Buying the War)
In the last half of the 18th century when the American Revolution occurred, the oppressed colonists of America revolted against Britain in the name of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. (Jefferson) They wrote a Constitution and a Bill of Rights guaranteeing our right to privacy, freedom of speech, and freedom to worship. In 2001, George Bush and Congress nearly passed a piece of legislation that undermined our constitutional ability to criticize our government.
The Patriot Act, enacted by George W. Bush, classifies someone who speaks out against the government as disloyal, and demands his or her citizenship be revoked in the name of fighting terrorism. Wire phone tapping in the name of investigating suspected terrorists was legal. On top of an undermining of our constitutional rights, subjects are searched based on a religious and cultural bias at the will of Homeland Security at airports. We as a nation have lost our identity. We were sold our American identity based on the interest of those in power. Using symbols that are sacred to the American people such as the Flag, a government regime can minimize the number of critics by alienating them in a “disloyal” category. If you are not a Patriot, you are not an American. In reality, a declaration of war by a President is the most serious decision that can be made, and requires the most serious scrutiny. This scrutiny was eliminated by the exploitation of our American Flag. It is fair to say that the American Flag is exploited to protect the interests of those in power, because it is used to mask corruption that undermines the social and economic freedoms that we were founded on.
Barbara Kingsolver addresses the exploitation of the American flag in her essay “And Our Flag was Still There.” In the following passage, she addresses how a particularly dangerous brand of nationalism arose from the overuse of the flag in the name of violence and bigotry.
“In the days and months following September 11, some bully-patriots claiming to own my flag promoted a brand of nationalism that threatened freedom of speech and religion with death, as witnessed by the Sikhs and Muslims in my own community, and U.S. Representative Barbara Lee in hers. (Several of her colleagues confessed they wanted to vote the same way she did, but were frightened by the obvious threat from vigilante patriots.) Such men were infuriated by thoughtful hesitation, constructive criticism of our leaders, and pleas for peace. They ridiculed and despised people of foreign birth (one of our congressmen actually used the hideous term “rag heads”) who’ve spent years becoming part of our culture and contributing their labor and talents to our economy. In one stunning statement uttered by a fundamentalist religious leader, this brand of patriotism specifically blamed homosexuals, feminists, and the American Civil Liberties Union for the horrors of September 11. In other words, these hoodlum-Americans were asking me to believe that their flag stood for intimidation, censorship, violence, bigotry, sexism, homophobia, and shoving the Constitution through a paper shredder?” (Kingsolver 550)
Here Kingsolver comments on the type of patriotism that was associated with the use of the flag after September 11th. She addresses how such a dangerous brand of patriotism can undermine our freedoms. She makes a correlation with the components of the flag threatening freedom of speech after September 11th. This threat occurred with the construction of the U.S. Patriot Act.
The Patriot Act, an act that is based on a concept embodied by our flag itself, is anything but patriotic. If being patriotic is supposed to entail what it did over 200 years ago, we are supposed to value liberty and justice. Is a lack of privacy in our own home patriotic? Is disloyalty to the government in the name of free speech and dutiful criticism unpatriotic? This act was written less than a month after 9/11, when a picture of three firefighters holding a flag on top of the ruins of the twin towers swept the nation. In the light of a nation of flag bearers and “patriots”, the Patriot Act was written under our noses. If you questioned the Patriot Act and what it described as “unpatriotic,” well, you were considered a terrorist.
This tactic of exploiting the flag to recreate patriotism protected the interest of the administration to invade Iraq. It minimized criticism of the government and allowed for an act that undermined our Constitutional Rights to conditionally pass. It was in this way that George Bush and his administration were able to eliminate our democratic right to a plurality of ideas and sources, undermining our social freedom of free speech. Since information was suppressed, our debates were conducted in a limited playing field, not considering questions that could be raised, but weren’t in fear of being disloyal to the flag or patriotism. Sometimes suppressed information can lead to masked corruption that gets exposed down the line.
Barbara Kingsolver continues to address how the flag can be exploited because of its ambiguity. She comments on how if you are not standing behind what it is being interpreted for by those who exploit the flags ideals, you are alienated.
“The last time I looked at a flag with an unambiguous thrill, I was thirteen. Right after that, Vietnam began teaching me lessons in ambiguity, and the lessons have kept coming. I’ve learned of things my government has done to the world that make me shudder: Covert assassinations of democratically elected leaders in Chile and the Congo; support of brutal dictators in dozens of nations because they smiled on our economic interests; training of torturers in a military camp in Georgia; secret support even of the rising Taliban in Afghanistan, until that business partnership came to a nasty end. In history books and numbers of our Congressional Record I’ve discovered many secrets that made me ashamed of how my country’s proud ideology sometimes places last, after money for the win and power for the show. And yet, when I’ve dared to speak up about these skeletons in our closet, I’ve been further alienated from my flag by people who waved it at me, declaring I should love it or leave it.”(Kingsolver 551)
Kingsolver addresses our “skeletons in the closet” in this passage that have been constructed by exploitations of the flag’s ambiguity. She addresses the killing our country has done in the name of community, as truly being a shameful aspect of business partnerships. She shakes her head at the times where she felt like she couldn’t wave the flag if she wasn’t in support of deeds of imperialism, and how ideals of kindness and freedom were often put on the backburner. It is a shame how we might have let a new skeleton be created so recently in our country’s history.
After September 11th, rather than taking the money out of the hands of the mass murderers that conducted the terrible acts against our country, George Bush lowered gas prices. Instead of pushing for ways to create renewable energy that would separate and eliminate our economic support for the very nations we would wage war on, he lowered gas prices to encourage economic growth in the oil industry.
It is unclear whether there was a definite intention of invading Iraq for purposes of acquiring access to unrestricted oil reserves, but we do have proof of one thing. George Bush, Condoleezza Rice, and Dick Cheney all had their roots in the oil and auto industries. Using WHIG tactics and the American flag, they were able to wage war on a developing country in the name of democracy and Patriotism. This was all during a time where more and more tax havens were granted, and more and more exemptions were granted for light trucks (SUVs) on regulations of carbon emissions. In my essay about the necessary plurality of ideas for a democracy to exist, I address how these unregulated markets undermine our economic freedoms. Actions that undermined the economic freedoms we were founded on were conducted in the name of democracy, because they took place alongside an American flag in the name of patriotism.
The identity shift we have gone through is undeniable. No longer are we a beautiful nation of life and liberty. The exploitation of our nation’s flag has masked corruption that undermines the freedom’s we were founded on. We are now a nation of ruthless exploitation, imperialism, and violence. The tremendous shift in the past administration took place in the name of patriotism alongside the American Flag. If we don’t act soon and reclaim our identity, our morals and values, and our flag, the world will lose respect and any inkling of hope for us. In light of the state we have drove ourselves into, Barbara Kingsolver once again comments on the necessity to preserve our flag and our freedoms.
“Stating these realities is not so poetic, but it is absolutely a form of patriotism. Questioning our government’s actions does not violate the principles of liberty, equality, and freedom of speech; it exercises them, and by exercise we grow stronger. I have read enough of Thomas Jefferson to feel sure he would back me up on this. Our founding fathers, those vocal critics of imperialism, were among the world’s first leaders to understand that to a democratic people, freedom of speech and belief are not just nice luxuries, they’re as necessary as breathing. The authors of our Constitution knew, from experience with King George and company, that governments don’t remain benevolent to the interests of all, including their less powerful members, without constant vigilance and reasoned criticism. And so the founding fathers guaranteed the right of reasoned criticism in our citizenship contract—for always.”(Kingsolver 553)
We have strayed from our ideals, and it is time to bring them back. It is time to clean up the exploitation, the ignorance, the greed, and the endless consumption. The Internet is changing the media, the very forum for leading the community conversation and fueling government propaganda. We now have possibilities of information exchange at speeds and heights never dreamed of during the American Revolution. The duty for scrutiny, debate, and action has never been as important as now. The ripple of recession infiltrates our homes, streets, and schools, and the whole world is changing. We need to demand answers to questions such as the “light truck” exemption for SUVs in Carbon emissions regulations, and demand higher healthcare standards for Americans that work for the most powerful companies. If they refuse to act, the masses need to refuse to work. Princes are only serfs because we have allowed them to gain so much power: by not acting, making compromises, and taking the backseat. Let us reclaim our identity through local reform, local media, and local action.
Buying the War. Dir. Bill Moyers. Bill Moyers Journal. Apr. 2007. 9 Mar. 2009 .
Jefferson, Thomas. “The Declaration of Independence.” Us History.org. 4 July 1776. 9 Mar. 2009 http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/document/index.htm
Kingsolver, Barbara. “And Our Flag Was Still There.” The Presence of Others (2002).