Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Flag Pins

I come from a culture that seldom wears pins of any sort. Even in my youth, when men up here wore pins far more often than they do now (partly because they wore suitcoats more often), they would sport a small Rotary or Masonic symbol on the lapel, or some barely-visible symbol on a tie-tack. Especially religious men might have a teeny cross. Except on specifically patriotic occasions, wearing of a flag pin was rare. In fact, all of my cultural influences are non-pinwearing. Northern Europeans, especially Scandinavians, especially Swedes, dislike display in general. New Englanders likewise prefer reserve. Ivy Leaguers are notoriously understated (except, oddly, on vacation at Bar Harbor or the Cape). When my people become Pentecostals, they still worship with considerably less noise than the average mainstreamer anywhere else - except perhaps Minnesota.

So we are suspicious of displays of piety or patriotism, and wonder if those more energetic are trying too hard. It's just unseemly. A bit vulgar. We are largely unaware how quickly we jump to the conclusion that all those others are hypocrites. When I bring that idea out into the open - I tend to do that - people up here deny it. When they are conscious of the connection, they back away from it, because they know that this would be worse than silly. It would be judgmental, drawing conclusions about others' sincerity from what is merely a cultural bias of our own.

But we do. We absolutely do, and you can hear it come into play in religious and political discussions all the time.

This floats the other way, of course. People from other places and traditions are sure that we must not love Jesus, or not love America, because we're quiet. So I will briefly say to my readers from other places knock it off.

But it is my own people who I am taking to task here. First, when you give up displaying a sentiment openly, you will give up the sentiment itself a generation or two later. See, for example, that the disappearance of church attendance started in northern Europe and northern America. The distaste for American flag-waving tends to come from northern Europe. Protesting that you don't have to make a fuss to be a good Christian or a good American is unarguably true. Yet it is a deeper truth that in declining to make a fuss, your body will eventually turn and persuade the mind that it must not be all that important.

But second, and more immediately, this attitude is much more part of blue state disapproval of red state mores than they could endure to contemplate, were they faced with the truth. It leaks out unguarded - no, it often gushes out spitefully - however much it is denied.

I live here. I grew up here. I have been observing this all my life, though I didn't notice it until middle-age, when I became less liberal, then postliberal, and found myself suddenly associated with all these pin-wearers (or flag-raisers) and distancing myself from the pin-shunners. The dissonance was powerful, and I confess that I had to hear it first in the more extreme sneering before I was able to admit that I had any of it at all. And I found its name was Legion.

Third, there is a darker element still. There was another culture which didn't wear flag pins or boisterously sing the national anthem, and I belonged to that as well. This was not a culture of quiet faith or understated patriotism, but a culture which actively rejected faith and patriotism. Remember Frank Zappa's line: "You've seen 'em! You've seen 'em with their little fish on the back of their cars! Just remember. They are the enemy!" Perhaps not coincidentally, that group also drew heavily from the Ivy and (Ivy-wannabee), northern-Europe-admiring crowd.

All this was in play when there was all the fuss about Obama not wearing a flag pin to something-or-other. Politicians are not accidental in their symbolism. But - and students of the various arts take note - symbols have neither a single meaning nor multiple meanings. They have a range of meanings. When Young Goodman Brown grasps the staff that the devil has left for him, is it an act of open rebellion against God, or merely an illustration of how we might choose darkness unawares, almost unconsciously? It is clearly a sign of going into sin, or grasping evil to oneself, but to understand the degree of it, we must get the context from the rest of the story.

So also with not wearing a flag pin. Many conservatives were quick to jump to the most extreme interpretation of the symbol's range: that Obama is a hater of the flag and patriotism. The candidate's supporters declared the meaning came from opposite edge of the symbol's range: he just didn't, our people don't, we don't think patriotism resides in the display of a pin, what are you guys getting so exercised about?

We might try to narrow it down, trying to see what it "really" meant, by getting context from other related behaviors by Obama. But I think that misses an important subtlety. I believe it was meant to be ambiguous across a considerable range of symbol's meaning. In that way, Obama could communicate to several groups at once "I'm one of you. You're my people," while maintaining deniability that he was expressing any such thing. It's what politician's do.

9 comments:

GM Roper said...

AVI, I'm so glad to have dropped by today and caught this post. Earlier I read a post at Marc Cooper's where he pokes at folk waving the flag or putting flags or flag decals on their cars, then my co-blogger Woody's post poking fun at the uber-liberals at Cooper's site and now this.

Like you, I once grew away from "wearing" pins etc. as I grew away from God and Country but have re-adopted those symbols as I've returned.

I get upset when I see someone flying the flag on their car but dump trash out the window on the highways, just as I get upset at folk who seem to have a need to poke fun at those of us who appreciate, cherish and display the symbols of what we care strongly about.

When people can accept symbolism in all it's meanings and all of it's gaudiness and even in all it's shrillness, or not get offended when people don't use those same symbols (or perhaps different one's) I think that maybe a sign we are growing up.

Donna B. said...

New England is one area of the U.S. I've never visited, mostly because I have no relatives there... and vacations have generally coincided with family get-togethers in some way.

But my cultural roots are strongly against ostentatious displays of any kind - including bumper stickers, jewelry, clothing, houses, vehicles.

Flag pins would come under the heading of jewelry. They are usually not large enough or gaudy enough to be ostentatious.

But there are enough old-fashioned military people around me that I grew up thinking the flag should not be used in such a way. Though my husband has a USMC pin, he would balk at wearing a flag pin as being disrespectful to the flag.

I was disgusted with Obama's decision to start wearing one after he was criticized. There goes your ambiguity idea, the the point about trying to show "I'm one of you" stands. He just didn't carry it off very well.

My husband and I part ways on displays when it comes to bumper stickers and t-shirts. I have never had a bumper sticker on my car, while his truck has several. I won't wear clothing that has a brand/designer label displayed as part of the design, or that advertises an organization or business.

wv - chords. Obama has a talent for striking the wrong ones.

Donna B. said...

GM - that photo is horrible! Truly, the pants are ridiculous and not respectful to the flag at all.

That, of course, doesn't translate into the guy wearing them being either patriotic or not.

The thing that bothered me about Cooper's post was the assumption that conservatives are anti-government.

jaed said...

So much of this is matters of style masquerading as matters of morality. Donna B. is clear about this: ostentatious display (of anything) seems kind of repellant to her. I'd guess any uncontrolled emotional display would also be something she'd find to be... kind of in bad taste.

Likewise with people like Cooper's commenters; it's so obvious that for many of them, the problem with flying a flag is an issue of taste and sensibility. Either they dislike the display in itself, or they are appalled by the lower-classness of the people who tend to fly flags. ("My God, Martha, these people drive... RVs!") Ironic display is fine; sincere display is questionable among people of that class.

Which is fine. Where it goes off the rails is when people start confusing their sensibilities with goodness, so that "following our social rules" morphs into "being an intelligent, caring, moral, and otherwise worthy person". This is not that hard a trap to fall into because our culture largely disdains distinctions of taste as shallow and meaningless, so if you find yourself making such distinctions, it's tempting to look around for something more substantial to hang your revulsion on.

Thus we end up with the aspirational class believing not just that the lower classes are revolting, but that they are actually worse people because they don't follow aspirational-class tastes.

This is a lot of why partisan politics are so bitter right now, I'm convinced: over the last twenty years or so, liberalism has become an aspirational-class marker. That class has also developed a tendency to confuse taste with goodness, so they see non-liberals as not just disagreeing (which would be one thing), and not just tasteless and hopelessly low-class (which would be another thing), but as bad, stupid, and worthless by virtue of that disagreement (which is a different thing entirely and very corrosive).

jaed said...

(Realizing belatedly on rereading this that I didn't draw as sharp a distinction between what Donna B wrote and the mindset I was criticizing as I had meant to. In my first paragraph, what I meant to say was not that Donna's post exemplifies the thing about confusing morality and style, but that she's clear that for her it's about taste and her cultural roots.)

(I hope I didn't offend you. I should have proofread for meaning before I hit Post.)

Donna B. said...

No worries jaed. I understood what you meant and even if I hadn't, I'm not that easy to offend.

FWIW, I don't find emotional displays in bad taste. Unless I suspect they are faked or unwarranted (ie, parents slapping or spanking their children in public... that's a display of anger that bothers me quite a bit. Actually any punishment or correction of a child done while the parent is angry bothers me. Especially when I do it. Let me tell you someday how my 3 year old granddaughter caused me to totally lose my cool in a WalMart restroom!)
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On 2nd thought, you're probably right about my attitude toward uncontrolled emotional displays - though I do deem some appropriate. Why yes, I was called uptight in college... why do you ask?
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I know quite well which group I fall into for most of the commenters at Cooper's place. I'm a southerner and a conservative. I don't need to fly a flag for them to consider me rude, crude, and socially unacceptable. Just because I won't wear a Skoal t-shirt doesn't mean I'm not a redneck, therefore automatically rude, crude, and socially unacceptable.

More about that photo at GM's place - upon further thought what really bothers me is that I can't tell whether it's making fun of people who wave the flag or just an ostentatious display of flag-waving with a good-hearted intent.

Is it a Poe? A Moby? Am I missing some really snarky nuance?

jaed said...

I took it as in-your-face display of patriotic flag-waving, with the pants added for fun.

One point about the pants is that they don't appear to be made of cut-up flags. For me anyway, there's a big difference between [mis]using flags to make clothing, etc. on the one hand, and using red-and-white striped cloth and blue-with-white-stars cloth. The first I find very offensive, but the second not at all. (I also don't mind those bikinis with stripes on the bottom and starred fabric on top.)

Carl said...

The "to each his own" approach works for me. Yet, I do not understand those who object to others displaying/wearing the flag. Especially if those same people carry accessories depicting a red star or wear Che t-shirts.

Donna's reluctance is perfectly reasonable. But I suspect that most progressives who object to flag display actually object to America.

Anna said...

To add to AVI's post about being a New Englander, it really is true that NEers do not show any likes, dislikes, passions, etc. It is not part of the culture. That being said, NE is being invaded by radical leftists from elsewhere and is thus taking on a lot of their characteristic displays of grotesque leftism.

So now, since NEers are constantly in "don't rock the boat" mode, now they have to not rock the boat in a culture distorted with grotesque leftism. How is that for mental gymnastics.

Not only is it not in the culture to show anything, it is also not in the culture to commit to anything, whether it be a church, a political party, a group, anything. I would be willing to bet that most Perot or Nader voters come from NE.