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Had Enough Of The Flag Yet?


July 6, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved. 

THE week before Independence Day, the Dixie Chicks played the Washington MCI Center, a mere dozen blocks or so from the White House. "Well, what do you know, Washington, D.C.," said the singer Natalie Maines, prompting a standing ovation from the crowd. "If I'm not mistaken, the president of the United States lives here." Then, as The Washington Post reported, the cheers grew even louder.

As we conclude this Fourth of July weekend, let us not forget the happy denouement to the saga of Ms. Maines, whose crime against America was to tell a London audience in March that she was "ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas." What followed were boycotts, death threats and a ritualistic network TV flogging in which, as Jim Lewis put it in Slate, Diane Sawyer demanded that the Chicks "affirm their patriotism and their support for the troops" in the "tradition of a Stalinist show trial."

No matter. The Dixie Chicks have been able to exercise free speech happily all the way to the bank. They've posed nude for the cover of Entertainment Weekly with "Saddam's Angels" emblazoned on their flesh. Their album "Home" rebounded from its brief dip, returning to No. 1 on the country chart for weeks. Their tour has sold out from its first stop, that left-wing stronghold Greenville, S.C. The Dixie Chicks may be bigger than ever.

From national infamy to renewed superstardom in a matter of weeks: that's the kind of story that restores your faith in an America where everything is possible. And most Americans, the Dixie Chicks no doubt included, not only have that faith in their country but love it as well. Yet you'd never know it from the more embittered cultural battles that have raged since 9/11.

"Read `Treason' this Fourth of July, and let the fireworks begin" commands the full-page ad hawking the latest book by Ann Coulter. In it the author claims that every liberal in the country – or at least every liberal Democrat – "hates America" and is guilty of her titular crime, which, last time I looked, is punishable by death. (The Dixie Chicks escaped her noose by turning traitor only after her book went to press.) According to her book jacket bio, Ms. Coulter's expertise in delivering such sweeping condemnations derives from having been "named one of the top 100 public intellectuals by federal judge Richard Posner in 2001." What she doesn't add – and this is typical of her own intellectual methodology in "Treason" – is that the list was compiled not on the basis of smarts but on the number of times names turned up in the media during the Clinton-hating heyday of 1995 to 2000. Mr. Posner's book was titled "Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline" (my italics), and by its ranking system, Ms. Coulter turns out to be far less of an intellectual than such conspicuous traitors as Sidney Blumenthal, Susan Sontag and Gore Vidal.

At least she doesn't slap the flag on the front of her book to wrap herself in it. (She chose instead an idealized photo of something she loves more than Old Glory: herself.) The same cannot be said of Dick Morris and Sean Hannity, who use the Stars and Stripes as a merchandising tool for their own self-aggrandizingly patriotic screeds cashing in on their TV celebrity. In this, they follow the lead of their employer, the Fox News Channel, which, like its less successful cable rivals, has exploited the flag as a logo to sell itself as more patriotic than thou.

Such flag-waving for personal and corporate profit has gotten so out of hand that last month, when the House of Representatives passed a constitutional amendment banning flag desecration for the umpteenth time, I for once found myself rooting for the Senate to follow suit. It would be fun to watch TV executives hauled on to Court TV. If NBC's post-9/11 decision to slap the flag on screen in the shape of its trademarked peacock wasn't flag desecration, what is?

As patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, so the coercive patriotism of this historical moment is the last refuge of cynics. In "The Story of American Freedom," the historian Eric Foner observes that a similar phenomenon occurred a little over a century ago, uncoincidentally enough, in tandem with "America's triumphant entry onto the world stage as an imperial power" during the Spanish-American War. It was in the 1890's that "rituals like the Pledge of Allegiance and the practice of standing for the playing of `The Star-Spangled Banner' came into existence," as well as Flag Day. Our leaders were then professing to spread democracy to Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines with the same blithe self-assurance that our current leaders promise to bring the American way to Iraq and its neighbors.

The rituals we get to accompany our 21st-century imperial interlude include fights over the Pledge of Allegiance and a costumed president's re-enactment of Hollywood's "Top Gun." Most bizarre is the defense department's new Operation Tribute to Freedom, initiated on Memorial Day weekend, which offers talking points to those citizens too challenged to figure out for themselves how "to demonstrate public appreciation for American men and women in uniform." (One approved method: listing your name and "patriotic activities" on a government Web site.) When America's patriotism turns this "garrulous," as Alexis de Tocqueville once observed, it "wearies even those who are disposed to respect it."

But patriotism needn't make us so weary. Look around our culture, and it isn't hard to find a faith in America that is not defined by government-commissioned flag-waving, political demagoguery or cable news's jingoism-as-marketing-strategy. The most telling American fables don't come in the blacks and whites of our current strident political and cultural discourse, which so often divides Americans into either flag-draped heroes or abject traitors. The great American stories, from Huckleberry Finn's to the Dixie Chicks', have always been nuanced; they can have poetry and they can have dark shadows. They can combine a love of country with an implicit criticism of it.

One example this summer is the movie that could prove to be the redeeming Hollywood entertainment of this schlock-movie year: Gary Ross's adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand's "Seabiscuit," opening later this month. The title character, as almost everyone knows by now, is the misshapen race-horse-that-could of the 1930's that captivated the nation, becoming a bigger story than Hitler and F.D.R. on the eve of World War II.

The unlikely triumph of the horse, its jockey (Tobey Maguire in the film), its trainer (Chris Cooper) and its owner (Jeff Bridges) is right out of Horatio Alger, but as presented by Mr. Ross, the Depression background of economic injustice and deprivation is in the same sharp focus as the nail-biting foreground at Santa Anita. It's precisely this panoramic context that makes a classic American struggle against all odds all the more poignant. Not every American rooting for Seabiscuit, after all, got a piece of the purse.

"Seabiscuit" could be a bookend to an unexpected film success that's been sweeping the country since late spring, the documentary "Spellbound," about eight young contestants in the National Spelling Bee of 1999. The kids it chronicles are almost a too-perfect American cross-section – from a privileged child of the suburbs to the black daughter of a single mother in a D.C. housing project to (most stirringly) the daughter of non-English-speaking Mexican immigrants in the Texas Panhandle. The Bee is arguably as wacky as a Coney Island hot-dog-eating contest, and the parents who cheer the kids on can occasionally be as hard-driving as the appalling stage parents on Fox's insufferable weekly tots' talent contest, "American Juniors."

One such parent in "Spellbound" is an immigrant from India who drills his son tirelessly, prepping him on as many as 8,000 words a day in the family's beach house in San Clemente, Calif. "There is no way you can fail in this country," the father says while showing off the home he designed and built himself. "That's one guarantee in this country – if you work hard, you'll make it." As the movie then demonstrates, that is far from the case. There are nine million children competing in the National Spelling Bee, most of them working hard, and, as in the races of "Seabiscuit," only one competitor comes in first.

As one of our best playwrights, Richard Greenberg, writes in another genuinely patriotic drama on tap this summer, the baseball play "Take Me Out," these all-American competitions reveal something about America that our current political debates avoid: "While conservatives tell you, leave things alone and no one will lose, and liberals tell you, interfere a lot and no one will lose, baseball says: Someone will lose . . . So that baseball achieves the tragic vision that democracy evades."

Even if their parents sometimes forget, the children in "Spellbound" understand this tragic vision implicitly, but are not defeated by it and do not deserve to be labeled un-American for recognizing it. Like Red Pollard, the washed-up jockey who makes good in "Seabiscuit," they will look for the second chances that America at its best affords those who lose the game.

Most Americans, whatever their age, don't need politicians or government boondoggles like Operation Tribute to Freedom or enforced flag-waving or fictionalized TV dramatizations of Jessica Lynch's rescue to tell them what it means to be an American. You see the wise, optimistic young citizens of "Spellbound," whether struggling or triumphant, and you see the whole package that is America, imperfect and heartbreaking as it sometimes is. That the Ann Coulters of 2003 look around our nation and see traitors everywhere is pathetic, but not so much so that they can spoil what we celebrate on the Fourth.  

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