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July 7, 2010

Flag Fetish

Elsa/Getty Images
Elsa/Getty Images

I was at Yankee Stadium recently and as has been customary every since World War II, such sporting events begin with a standing salute to the “Star Spangled Banner—America’s national anthem.  During the seventh inning stretch, when one expected to hear “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” an announcer implored all of the fans to stand facing in the direction of the American flag, to take their hats off, and to honor the singing of “God Bless America.”  This latest paean to American exceptionalism became a practice in New York after the tragic events of  9/11 and although it resulted in a law suit initiated by the NYCLU, it continues to the present day unabated. That said, such a flag fetish is not unique to New York, as we see in the  photograph of a red, white, and blue shrouded “Green Monster” in Boston’s Fenway Park on the Fourth of July.

There is of course nothing wrong in celebrating America’s heritage with displays of the flag, especially on the anniversary of our national “birth,” but notice here how the elongated flag (one of three in the photograph) is completely out of scale with its surroundings—both in size and dimension—as if to imply that there is nothing that can’t be covered by its reach.  Such hubris is accented by the military fly over and honor guard which frame the image across the diagonal from upper left to lower right. Though barely conspicuous in comparison to the magnitude of the flag, the martial presence in the image nevertheless emphasizes the normalization of a war culture in American life, even as the flag serves to articulate commitments to nationalism and militarism as if naturally and necessarily connected.

The relationship between nationalism and militarism is naturalized in no less subtle terms in this photograph of a young girl reaching for the flag that cloaked the coffin of her father, an Army Specialist recently killed in Afghanistan.

Kelly Pressnell/AP/Arizona Daily Star

The child is absolutely beautiful; her skin soft and unblemished, her hair neatly combed into a pony tail, she exudes childlike purity and innocence. The expression on her face teeters between wonder and desire as receives the flag being handed to her from a member of the military honor guard. At some later date she might question with tears and anger why her father had to die in a war of occupation before she got to know him, but here her rapt attention is focused on the symbolic remnant that stands in simultaneously for his absence (as her biological father) and presence (as her national father), and she accepts it with open arms.  That she is dressed  in red, white, and blue only serves to accentuate the connection between the military hand offering her the flag and her own significance as a metaphorical representation of the nation.

The implication of these two images is no different than many more images regularly put on display in newspapers and website slide shows, and more is the pity, for the flag should be a symbol of patriotism—love of one’s country— and not an unguarded cipher for normalizing a military culture.

cross posted from No Caption Needed

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