Archive for the Flag Day Category

The Baggage of Flaggage

Posted in African American Interest, CULTURE & POLITICS, Flag Day, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES with tags , , , , , , on June 14, 2016 by travsd
A fool and an ass in the act of desecrating the flag.

A fool and an ass in the act of desecrating the flag. It’s been done before.

I’ve been wanting to publish this post for many months. It is essentially a follow up to this earlier post about the continued flying of the Confederate flag I wrote about a year ago, and expands upon this earlier post about American flagolatry. 

But I decided to save it for reflection on Flag Day. As it happens, I am in the midst of a series of posts about American culture, history and politics and this one fits right in with the series. I began this particular run of posts around May 1, and it will likely spool out through the election in November.

The present post grew out of the eye-opening realization, spawned from my recent research, that there’s a lot of smug, self-satisfied hypocrisy involved in projecting all our ire onto the Stars and Bars, which is merely one regional, temporary manifestation of American racism (and that for just one news cycle — heard any complaints about the Stars and Bars lately?). It’s occurred to me that  by focusing solely on the evils of the slave holding states of the Confederacy, America avoids a painful and necessary confrontation  with those committed under the banner of the Stars and Stripes. Because the truth is that behind the lofty language, and the annual pats on the back we give ourselves, the American flag has as many sins to atone for as the Confederate one.

Over time, the Stars and Bars has become a sort of lightning rod that draws attention away from America’s culpability in the very same crimes against humanity and allows us to live with ourselves in relative complacency. The narrative has been written a certain way, one that is given a convenient, digestible gestalt by the false “us and them” conformation of the Civil War.  According to this mental portrait, “the North” is and was a haven of enlightened love and racial tolerance, and “the South” is and was some rogue culture with a foreign set of values

And yet the truth is that in America until 1865, slavery existed under various versions of THIS flag and its predecessors:

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Southern States seceded because they feared future interference with an activity they had been engaged in for 150 years not as “Confederates” but as AMERICANS. Further, when Abraham Lincoln took office in 1860, he did so with no mandate or declared intention of ending slavery in those Southern states. He was an outspoken critic of slavery, yes, and hoped to end the EXTENSION of slavery to new American territories. But only the secession crisis and the Civil War made political conditions possible in America for the passage of the 13th Amendment. (Even the Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves in the rebel territories, a theoretical gesture at best. The Union still permitted slavery in the border states of Maryland, Missouri, Kentucky, and Delaware until 1865).

Further, as most people know, the North engaged in slavery as well, though on a smaller scale because it didn’t have the same plantation economy. I have always had a special awareness of this because my home town, for a variety of reasons, had the highest capita concentration of slaves in the North until the Revolution, and nearby Newport was the slave trading center of the entire country. Then, as a result of the ferment that came out of the separation from Britain and the foundation of a new nation under the constitution, the northern states did make slavery illegal, but there was a certain amount of foot dragging. New York abolished it in 1827, but allowed “part-time” slavery until 1841. New Jersey, the southernmost northern state, passed an act for gradual abolition in 1804, the practical result of which was final abolition in 1846. (In 1830, 2/3 of the slaves that remained in the north were in New Jersey). Slavery was finally abolished in Pennsylvania via its gradual manumission law in 1847. Further, there was all the federal law that sanctioned and enabled slavery (e.g. the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850; the Dred Scott decision of 1857). And the continued financial participation of northern business interests in the slave economy. An excellent resource on the North’s involvement in slavery can be found at www.slavenorth.com.   But the truth is that until the end of the Civil War, America (as opposed to a confederation of breakaway states) was a country with slavery. The American flag is the Other Slavery Flag.

And then came the failures of Reconstruction and the institution of Jim Crow lasting another century. Here, too, another convenient opportunity for finger pointing by the North. And yet, what but the cold indifference of a racist NORTHERN majority could have allowed that to happen? Consider the de-Nazification program that America oversaw in post-war Germany in the 1940s and 50s, and the similar effort in Japan. It is illegal to fly a swastika in Germany to this day. The situation in the defeated South was quite different, thanks to the hands-off policy of the U.S.: they were allowed to continue to fly an enemy flag, erect statues to leaders who killed American troops, and taught to espouse the same ideology that gave rise to the conflict in the first place.

Why? The answer should be obvious. The North was full of racists, too. Indeed, it might be said that, just like the South, it consisted of a MAJORITY of racists. The difference between the regions being merely one of degree, not of kind. In all the former slaveholding states, North as well as South, blacks were second class citizens, menials, mocked in entertainment, and officially barred from advancement by a thousand hurdles. If you have studied the Ku Klux Klan at all, then you know that its greatest extent occurred not at its founding (1865-1871) when it was a local Southern movement formed in reaction to Radical Reconstruction, but during the so-called Second Klan (1915-1944), formed in the wake of the movie The Birth of a Nation. At its peak in the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan had 4 million members, and it flourished in the north as well as the south. The state with the highest Ku Klux Klan membership per capita was Indiana. Northern cities like Detroit (40,000 members) were hotbeds of Klan activity. The largest Klan gathering in New England was held in Worcester in 1924, when 15,000 Klansmen, new inductees and supporters convened at the Agricultural Fairgrounds. (A riot broke out when protesters also showed up, and local membership immediately fell off after that).

Here’s a photo of a Klan parade in Binghamton, NY. H’m…they seem to be marching with a flag, and it’s not a Confederate one:

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And today we live in a third era, in the wake of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, where America for the most part is no longer officially racist in terms of laws on the books. But a stupifying denial of responsibility remains, along with an attitude that “it’s all behind us”. But remnants of racist culture persist to bedevil us, sometimes (as in the case of law enforcement) with lethal results.

The enormity of American slavery and the culture’s subsequent treatment of blacks is a blight on the scale of the Holocaust: millions kidnapped, killed, tortured, raped, imprisoned, and condemned to hard labor. Removal and extermination were not the agenda in this case; that was covered by our Native American policy, which we haven’t even touched on here. One of the first people to openly point out these twin blots on the American record was none other than Adolf Hitler, in a 1939 speech before the Reichstag, in which he ridiculed Roosevelt’s hypocrisy in criticizing him. A case can be made that Hitler’s policies found precedent in America’s (particularly, his dream of opening up “Lebensraum” in the east by simply enslaving or getting rid of the populations he found there).

And yet — well, America rid the world of Hitler, did we not? In fact, that is the primary thing I contemplate with pride when I look at the American flag. And when did the Second Klan start to wither on the vine? 1944. I think some soul searching was inevitable in the wake of what we learned was happening in Germany. It was after the war that some progress started to happen on Civil Rights. But you will admit that any progress has been like pulling teeth. We grudgingly dole out restitution and equity to the children of the people we enslaved with eye droppers and then congratulate ourselves for what beneficent souls we are.

I was going to spout a bit more on American failures to live up to its own articulated ideals (our genocidal Indian policy, and several wars of conquest and domination), but really that’s an entire book, and Howard Zinn already wrote that — and it’s a book I don’t like. Zinn’s attack is too ad hominem. He acts like America is the only nation with black marks against it (when nearly every nation of the world has similar ones), and further that America ONLY works evil in the world, which is something I will never sign off on. At times this nation has fought against tyrants and of those occasions we can and should be proud, and that’s what I for one think of at the moments when we’re supposed to be honoring it.

Some people are of a different mind. “My country, right or wrong” is what my father used to spout, but frankly that notion violates my every conception of what it means to be an American. My idea of the America worth honoring (and the English constitutional culture it grew out of) has been a kind of an ever-evolving, international midwife of human freedom. It starts with the Magna Carta, which limited the power of the monarchy; and then the American Revolution which separated us from that monarchy and the aristocracy that undergirded it; and then the Jacksonian Revolution which expanded political power from the landed gentry to all white men; and then women’s suffrage; and then finally the enforcement of voting rights for blacks with 1965 federal legislation. And so it’s about building a society where people are not just free from oppression, but everyone has a say in their own destiny. And the encouragement of similar freedom and power-sharing in the nations around the world.

What it is NOT supposed to be is some tribe that can do (as all nations everywhere have always done) whatever the hell it likes, run roughshod over other peoples and other nations, and demand conformity and unformity among its citizens. If that’s what it is, I see no point. And increasingly, I confess I see no point. In 2016, there is something kind of barbaric about the concept of “nations”. Nations and nationalism are 19th century thinking, and it scarcely seems advanced beyond the medieval. The current age has created a situation where we’re all constantly crossing borders: making friends, doing business, trading, simply exchanging ideas. In America, we watch the BBC, and when the Paris bombings happened we watched the live coverage on French television. The world is increasingly like this.  We reach a point where we have much more in common with our peers in other countries than with our political and social antagonists at home. What matters are ideals and values and principles. Yes, there are still brutes out there like Putin….all the more reason to make a world where people like Putin don’t matter any more. Pussy Riot, not Putin, are the international Russian heroes .

But patriotism is about love of country. I think I’ve established in my writing a thousand fold how much I love American culture, or aspects of it. Theoretically, it is supposed to be the nature of love that it be unconditional. There are certain people in your life whom you love whether they are right or wrong, your spouse, your family, your closest friends. If that’s not true, can you be said to truly love them? That’s a topic for debate, at least. But when it comes to GROUPS of people, I think it is different and actually problematic. Groups of people are actually abstractions, and in almost every case I can think of, putting artificial groups (tribes) before individuals is a negative, whether it’s the Blue Line, or “the Corps”, or the team, or the school, or one’s own ethnic group, or a country. The world is too small for these exclusive tribes, and those who cling to them are inclined to become petty and cruel. See the doofus in the picture at the top of this blogpost. Apparently he loves the flag to the point of sexual perversity. That he loves any human being beyond himself, of that I see no evidence. The welfare of people is what matters, not which armed camp you live in.

The question I ask, rhetorically: is it time to retire this flag, alongside the Stars and Bars, and for that matter, all the other ones? And work on the next project for humanity (expanding freedom for all people) with a clean slate, without this symbol of a checkered past hanging around our necks? I ask it, with a question mark.

Juneteenth Message

Posted in CULTURE & POLITICS, Flag Day, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, ME, My Family History with tags , , , on June 19, 2015 by travsd
Torn and tattered Confederate Flag

No, asshole: THIS has to go.

We need to talk. That’s all anyone’s been saying since yesterday. Last night, my significant other and I heard at least three groups of people passing by our open window, all talking about THIS. Yeah, talk is cheap, but it’s better than nothing. I may seem an unlikely person to initiate a conversation on this topic, and this an unlikely place in which to do it, but there are all sorts of reasons why it’s appropriate for me to add my voice, so here goes.

It has to do with who I am.

When I was 13 years old, I took some of the money I’d earned from working at Tom Hoyle’s dairy farm, went to the county fair and bought one of these:

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It wasn’t exactly this model. The Stars and Bars were on front, as I recall. But I bought it and I wore it around for a few weeks, with all the perverse, contrarian pleasure of pubescence. I even recall wearing it to school and I don’t remember any uproar — a few eye rollings, at most. The only particular reaction I remember was one day I was walking down the sidewalk and I heard giggling and voices behind me and realized I was being followed by a black kid I knew named Stanley and his mom. They weren’t intimidating or harassing me — it was more like playful, good-natured ridicule, as though to say “Ho, ho! Look at Robert E. Lee over here!” They taunted me a bit, I ignored them, my face grew red, and I kept walking.

Now, it’s a good rule of thumb: if the thing you’re doing makes your face red, i.e., makes you ashamed, it is probably shameful, and you shouldn’t be doing it. But what if some people tell you a thing is good and others tell you the same thing is bad? And that’s what this was like. I grew up in New England, but my father was from Tennessee. I have ancestors who fought for the Confederacy and ancestors who kept slaves. Yes we learned that slavery was wrong in school, but I didn’t hear that so much at home. What I heard was a lot of defensiveness (I won’t appall you on this occasion by laying out what the defenses and rationalizations and explanations were — surely you can imagine.) And my New England bred mother was not a moral bulwark against these preachings. She was the one who, when I brought home my black friend Ronnie Christy one day after school in the first grade, said “Tell your friend he has to leave now.”

This was the 1970s, technically after big  inroads in civil rights, but clearly with no concomitant revolution in the human heart, at least not in our house. In fact, it was the beginning in some ways of a sort of reactionary cultural movement throughout the country, the moment when people said, “OK, that’s all done, now we can move on.” The galvanizing anthem, a kind of clear cultural pivot was Lynyrd Skynyrd’s 1974 song “Sweet Home Alabama”, an answer song to Neil Young’s “Southern Man.” It was the beginning of Redneck chic, of Billy Carter, The Dukes of Hazard and Burt Reynolds comedies.

The rationale, the rallying cry was, “Hey, leave me alone! I didn’t do anything! I didn’t keep any slaves! Why can’t I be proud of who I am? And how can I honor my ancestors without these symbols? You get to honor your ancestors, why can’t I honor mine? What am I supposed to do, kill myself?”

But I grew up in Rhode Island, one of the Bluest states in the union, the heart of Kennedy-Dukakis-Kerry territory. It wasn’t long before I began hearing and learning and considering and adopting other points of view, ones more in keeping with my instincts about what I knew was right. And I worked on myself. HARD. I continue to do so, every single day. Because it’s on my conscience.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

But as someone who has also done wrong in his life before I also know from experience that endless apologizing wears thin mighty quick and in fact even becomes a kind of torture to the person who has been wronged. The only thing that makes it better is…things that make it better. Doing something . Taking some steps that actually improve the situation.

“What am I supposed to do, kill myself?”

To this day, MILLIONS of Americans hold this point of view. Some apologies have been made on their behalf by officialdom (a far off government they despise anyway) but these people haven’t even gotten around to the apology themselves, haven’t even arrived at the acknowledgment that their ancestors participated in something wrong — very wrong — as wrong as it gets — and it is their RESPONSIBILITY to make it right somehow. SOMEHOW. A small way, a big way. Some effort. Some something.

The Confederate Flag is a shameful symbol of genocidal hatred. That’s what it is because millions of people look at it and to them that’s what it means. It doesn’t matter what it means to you who fly it (and it probably means something heinous to you anyway). It hurts OTHERS. To display it is an official endorsement of LETHAL racism. That’s swell that your ancestors (my ancestors) fought and died under that banner, but you know what? Millions of Germans did that too under their banner and nobody’s flying any goddamn Nazi flags. This flag doesn’t just hurt people’s feelings, but it inspires maniacs to hurt, to KILL people, and not BAD people, the very BEST people, a minister, a grandmother, a college student. A five year old girl was traumatized for life, on behalf of your beloved Confederate flag.

The First Amendment protects free speech. That’s as it should be. But how about pulling all Federal funding from any entity that flies the Confederate flag, be it a state, a city, an organization, or whatever?  The only place where this flag should ever be seen anymore is in a museum under glass where we can all see and know and understand that it belongs in the PAST. But let’s kill it as a living symbol NOW. TODAY.  Any politician who’s not out front on this is DISQUALIFIED.

I hope she doesn’t mind my quoting her, but on social media this morning Desiree Burch very humanely referred to racism as a disease. I think that is the right metaphor. As an irrational hatred it’s a form of mental illness and, because it is widespread, it is a social plague. It is a disease. It needs to be eradicated. I know it can be done, because when I was a kid countless mentors, teachers, friends, and heroes changed my own fucked-up head around, and most of them didn’t even know they were doing it. They did it by being good examples. Our official institutions need to be held to that same standard.

Happy Juneteenth. 

Addendum: this past Flag Day, I posted a companion piece to this post about the OTHER slavery flag. To read that one, go here.

Happy Flag Day!

Posted in CULTURE & POLITICS, Flag Day, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, Tin Pan Alley with tags on June 14, 2011 by travsd

This is a holiday that embodies many contradictions. I love the flag — I have always made copious use of it as a design emblem at my American Vaudeville Theatre. I use it the same way Barnum, Tony Pastor, Harrigan & Hart and George M. Cohan used it — as a powerful and handy symbol. And I have done so without irony, even though there is something intrinsically self-contradictory about the American flag.

Trav S.D

They way I look at it, to be a true American patriot is to be in some sense “unpatriotic”.  In other words, one’s true allegiance ought to be to doing what’s right, not parties, clans, and least of all symbols. “Pledging allegiance to the flag” rather than to, say, the principle that “All Men Are Created Equal” (or better yet, “All People”) seems like dangerous waters to me — it goes hand in hand with all those authoritarianisms we as a People are supposed to reject. After September 11, I stopped using the flag at my shows for a long while because it seemed to me a whole bunch of people were flying it who didn’t understand what it’s supposed to stand for. You can see a bunch of them in that rodeo scene in Borat.

Flag-burning controversies aside, it seems to me that flags are a lot LIKE fire: primal, incendiary, and dangerous unless used with caution. Flag Day is a very good day to observe therefore, but always with that awareness. The day should be an opportunity for meditation and debate and cautious celebration — but never for blind worship, or indoctrination into conformity or obedience. Because the lesson I drew from American history class is that that’s precisely NOT what our flag is supposed to stand for. This is the flag that symbolizes your right to reject all flags! So fly it, wear it, make a motorcycle helmet out of it, use it to sell beer, or don’t do anything with it at all. The irony is, the latter may be the most patriotic course of action of all.

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