Barry’s Blog # 229: The Flag and the Hummer – How We Display Ourselves

Part One

Can you remember what public life was like in those first days and weeks after the tragedy of 9/11/2001? You know, back before the beginning of the longest war in American history. I’m thinking of how expression of our reactions and feelings seemed to follow a certain sequence. The first thing we saw, even as the ruins were still smoking, were spontaneous shrines on walls and fences, universal gestures of grief that anyone could understand.

Then, within only a few days, people began to display their American flags. The first ones available tended to be conventional ones erected on homes and lawns.

In a few weeks came flag decals applied directly to car and store windows. Soon, as American opportunism flowed seamlessly with patriotic sentiment, flag posters appeared on store windows everywhere. 

Next came cloth flags tied to antennae and plastic flagpoles that attached to windshields.

Many of those cloth flags quickly deteriorated in the wind and weather. So, eventually, store-bought, pre-tattered flags, designed to look like they had returned from battle, appeared.  When a car sped by boasting one of them on its own, flexible pole, the intention seemed to be to remind viewers of a John Wayne cavalry charge.

But as memory of 9-11 faded, so did most of the flags. They re-appeared at the beginning of the Iraq invasion and faded away again, after George W. Bush’s flight-deck declaration of the end of hostilities in May 2003, with a brief spike after Saddam Hussein’s capture. By 2005 (and 1,700 dead Americans) they were rarely seen; they had been replaced by decals in the shape of yellow ribbons mysteriously exhorting passers-by to “support the troops.”

The questions of flag desecration and improper use of it on clothing, etc,  had been raging for quite some time. But traditional display of the flag had been disappearing from much of American life ever since the Viet Nam War.  Much of the nation had split between those who were ashamed of the genocide that the U.S. had been perpetrating and those who used the flag, its “Missing In Action” variants and a narrow appreciation of war veterans to symbolize the reactionary movements and the racist politics of the 1980s and the Gulf War of the early 1990s. How do we make sense of this iconic 1976 photo from Boston’s school desegregation protests?

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This image inverts the iconic 1945 image of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima at the end of World War Two,  when America was attaining the apogee of its power and goodwill in the world. But in 1976 (the bicentennial year, and less than a year after the end of the Viet Nam War), the white man is planting his phallic staff in the fertile black soil of his opponent’s belly. How ironic that the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo is titled “The Soiling of Old Glory.” He is doing literal harm to the Other, and he is metaphorically attempting to re-establish that neo-colonial superiority that had been lost a mere 31 years after the first photo.

Perhaps we make sense of the Boston photo only by remembering what a critical part the Confederate flag has played in our traditional military and conservative displays.

For a much deeper analysis of the flag’s traditional meaning in the context of nationalism and sacrifice of the young, see Blood Sacrifice and the Nation, by Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle. You can read a brief synopsis here.

The flag made another comeback in 2009, when the Defense Department (under Barack Obama) drastically increased its “sports marketing” outreach to professional sports, especially pro football, which promptly “encouraged” its players for the first time to stand for the playing of the National Anthem. Qui bono? Follow the money…nearly $5.4 million in taxpayer dollars was paid out to NFL teams between 2011 and 2014 alone to encourage these public displays and admonitions to patriotic sentiment and “support for the troops.” In 2016, after adverse publicity, the NFL announced that it would reimburse the government for some $723,000 of those funds.

The grand spectacle of the Superbowl, and eventually most championship games in most major sports, pro or college, eventually included gigantic flags  that covered entire playing fields.151104-vet-flag-jets-football-344p_d061554c7660126d7d598f470ae01fe4.nbcnews-ux-2880-1000

And fans (Latin: mad, enthusiastic, inspired by a god, originally, pertaining to a temple), aided once again by opportunistic businessmen, could now broadcast their tribal membership with team flags on their cars.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. What were people saying with the displays on their cars? One could only imagine what messages were implied. And that’s my point. One might assume that these gestures were expressing nationalistic, even belligerent feelings, but could one be sure? Were they saying less about the sentiments and more about the drivers themselves?

And what about the decals that appeared next, the ones that read “God Bless America”? / Was this a declarative statement about fact (as in God most certainly does bless America, and more than other countries!)? Was it a demand, in the imperative mood (God: bless America, right now!)? Or was it a subjunctive plea, or a prayer (God, please Bless America! She really needs it!)? For some, it may have implied grief for the victims or solidarity with the firefighters and soldiers, or even shame for the nation. For others it meant rallying around the flag, the traditional gesture of identifying with the nation under the stress of war, silencing its shadow of self-doubt and marginalizing the anti-war movement. Or maybe it was simply a fashion statement.

All this points to one of the characteristics of what Joseph Campbell called the “de-mythologized world” – the fact that, along with the myths that once bound us together, we have lost most of the ritual gestures we once shared in common, such as wearing black in public to indicate mourning, and many of the public processions – weddings, funerals, second lines – that told the world: we have been changed forever.

Similarly, just as there were public gestures that people understood, there were words and tones of voice that polite people didn’t say, at least in public. The middle class and much of the working class had long subscribed to notions of propriety, decorum, modesty, respectability and decency, at least until the Age of Trump.

On some cars, the increasingly larger pickups and SUVs (Sport Utility Vehicle), it seemed that the flags really bespoke a kind of vicarious (and non-risky) heroism, a smirking defiance intended for any terrorists who might be lurking in the neighborhood. It was a game in which people (well, men, really) were displaying their gang colors. Perhaps the sentiment was also directed at liberals, with their smaller, more economic, slightly effeminate and perhaps a bit preachy cars (years later, some wag was the first to call the Prius, the Pius.

These gestures seemed to be saying, “They can attack us and hurt us, but we still have the biggest, the best, the most, and the most wasteful, of everything. Even if we die, we do so with the most toys.” Or simply: “We can afford to waste gas money!” After all, President Bush had told the nation to show the world – by going out and shopping – that America stood tall and united. Meanwhile, despite the slow economy, the Ford Truck Plant in Wayne, Michigan (at least until 2008) was still running three shifts per day, turning out the “Expedition,” Ford’s largest S.U.V. These were, perhaps, the gestures of the people driving the largest of the SUV’s, with the largest of the flags. How ironic that many of these patriotic behemoths had been built in other countries.

This idiocy was nothing new. The hardware was contemporary, but the ostentatious contempt for the natural world was deeply embedded in American myth. As I relate in Chapter Eight of my book, an association of Texas cattlemen bragged in 1898:

Resolved, that none of us know, or care to know, anything about grasses…outside of the fact that for the present there are lots of them… and we are after getting the most out of them while they last.

Part Two

Then came the Hummers (and improbably yet predictably, stretch limousines built out of Hummers), which finally won the status battle, being the largest, heaviest and most wasteful of all, with the bonus factor of having military associations. Indeed, the invasion of Iraq greatly boosted Hummer sales. Many of the Californians who elected the most macho of governors seemed quite proud of the fact that Arnold Schwartzenegger owned seven of them.

American myth is always about race. A Chrysler marketing manager admitted that the industry had designed the whole class of gas-guzzling SUVs to appeal to Americans’ fears of crime and other imagined threats:

SUV buyers want to be able to take on street gangs with their vehicles and run them down.

Another industry researcher and anthropologist observed that consumers understand logically that these vehicles are too high and not built for safety, but that their feelings seem to override their logic:

You feel secure because you are higher and dominate and look down. That you can look down is psychologically a very powerful notion.

Hummers, writes Colin McAdams, are a civilian version of the U.S. military vehicle known technically as the High Mobility Multi-Purpose Wheeled Vehicle, commonly as the “Humvee:”

Here’s the Hummer (original Model H1) on a city street: a swollen Jeep; an SUV with a bad thyroid and a bloated ego…Pedestrians and other drivers stare relentlessly, mouth their derision, (wondering) …How much steel goes into making these monstrosities; how much gas to make them move…how quickly can they stop? Outside the United States, Hummers are loathed for added reasons. They are the America of cars – a crass, overbearing, imperial presence on the road. They have a menacing wartime mien…My brother drives a Hummer. People spit on it as he goes by. Sometimes they hold their thumb and forefinger close together to suggest he has a small penis…Women, for the most part, are the least approving. Only little boys and a certain type of man will approach and say, “Can I see inside?”

But a Chrysler market researcher explains, “…people are looking for something that offers protection on the outside and comfort on the inside.” The second generation of Hummers, writes McAdams, were to be family vehicles:

The H2 is different. It is still gigantic, but it is built for comfort. It has a smooth suspension, a luxurious interior, can be endlessly accessorized, and celebrates immodesty in a more flamboyant manner. It can reach high speeds on the highway, which the H1 cannot. More women drive it than drive the H1, although most still frown at it. The H2 is too tall for commercial garages. Its fuel consumption is appalling (a fat man’s puff of twelve miles per gallon – and it does not run on diesel, like the H1).

In 2002 Keith Bradsher wrote the definitive expose of the SUV (High and Mighty: SUVsThe World’s Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way) and asked, “Who has been buying SUVs since automakers turned them into family vehicles?” He concluded that

They tend to be people who are insecure and vain. They are frequently nervous about their marriages and uncomfortable about parenthood. They often lack confidence in their driving skills. Above all, they are apt to be self-centered and self-absorbed, with little interest in their neighbors or communities. No, that’s not a cynic talking – that’s the auto industry’s own market researchers…

Clearly, many consumers were willing to pay $75,000 (or twice that for the largest Hummers) to symbolize a complex mix of of individualism, power, security, family, machismo, patriotism and freedom. And the auto industry, slap-happy with greed, ignored all signs of impending environmental and financial doom as it remade itself into suppliers of these tanks.

Political freedom appeared to be identical with freedom of the road and freedom, or license, to behave without any concern for the consequences – the freedom of the child in the crib to soil himself, who knows that mother will be there to clean up. At a Hummer rally, writes McAdam, two men traded stories “…about how much people in their neighborhoods hated the sight of them.” The founder of a Hummer owners’ group boasted, apparently without irony, that his vehicle symbolized,

…what we all hold so dearly above all else, the fact (that) we have the freedom of choice, the freedom of happiness, the freedom of adventure and discovery, and the ultimate freedom of expression. Those who deface a Hummer in words or deed deface the American flag and what it stands for.

This sense of freedom as freedom from restraint on the natural enthusiasm of the radical individual is another fundamental aspect of American myth, as I wrote in Chapter Seven of my book:

Freedom became a holy term that meant all things to all people. Liberty (from a Roman epithet for Dionysus, Liber) implies release – the return of the repressed – and liberation, in both its Marxist and Buddhist meanings. Americans struggled for a while with the difference between positive liberty (the power and resources to act to fulfill one’s own potential), and negative liberty (freedom from restraint, what one didn’t have to do). Eventually, the two forms of liberty birthed a monster: freedom became entitlement to do what one wants, regardless of the needs of the community, the power to achieve it, and the privilege to take liberties with others (“to liberate” is military slang for looting). This interpretation of the pursuit of happiness led eventually to the liberties extended to non-human entities – corporations.

(This was) freedom without responsibility, but it had unexpected results, writes Historian John Hope Franklin. The passionate pursuit of liberty by some resulted in the “destruction of the rights of others to pursue the same ends…the freedom to destroy freedom.”

The white, fundamentalist, pickup-driving, emerging base of the Republican Party had been spoon-fed the language of freedom for decades as states rights, anti-tax, anti-Civil Rights, anti-Big Government, anti-East Coast liberal, anti-atheist and anti-abortion (yes, freedom to restrict access to abortion) rhetoric. The GOP, unlike the Democrats, was well versed (and well funded) in this mythological thinking, or, as George Lakoff writes, framing the debate.

A disturbingly large percentage of their target audiences had known quite well, at least since the Nixon years, that this kind of freedom meant We won’t give your hard-earned tax dollars to the Niggers. By the year 2001 was anyone surprised when George W. Bush used “freedom,” “free,” and “liberty” 49 times in his second inaugural address?

A few years later, with elegant and astounding disregard for the lives of the hundreds of soldiers dying to secure Iraq’s oil (do you remember that Operation Iraqi Freedom was originally called Operation Iraqi Liberation until someone in the White House realized the acronym?), the oaf at the Hummer rally proudly expressed the philosophy of those Americans who have no problem equating patriotism, freedom, status and denial in a grand and adolescent statement. As I conceived this essay I found myself behind yet another Hummer – an H1 – with a bumper sticker that read, “The more you disapprove, the more fun it is for me.” He had eloquently cast himself and his crowd as the Dionysian rebels and me and mine as prudish parental figures.

For a few years the Hummer was one of those deeply potent symbols in which the paranoid (irrational obsession with fear) and predatory (narcissistic exhibition of control) imaginations meet each other. In this new gilded age, public gestures now declare one’s membership in a particular tribe.

That tribe, to invoke American myth – and religion – once again, is the tribe of the elect,those whom Providence has declared to be the winners in life. For at least 120 years, at least since the closing of the frontier, this has been a zero-sum story: for every winner, many, many losers.

Thus, to readers familiar with my writing, we have another fundamental, emblematic image for the new century. The first, of course, is the picture of the collapsing twin towers. I have suggested that the second is the woman in the burkha, as I wrote here.

The third image is the Hummer bedecked with the American flag. In my analogy to The Bacchae, I compared the towers to Pentheus’s palace in Thebes. The woman in the burkha evokes Dionysus and all of the Others of the world, from women to oppressed minorities to terrorists. And the flag-bedecked Hummer represents Pentheus, in all his defiant, adolescent, blustering, willful ignorance of his impending initiatory catastrophe (Greek: “to overturn, turn down, trample on,” which is indeed what the crazed women do to him, and what the economy would soon do to the Hummer). It is the ultimate symbol of both “Boy Psychology” and the myth of enduring innocence, as it taunts all of the Others of the world, in Bush’s words, to “Bring ‘em on!”

In 2008 the financial crisis hit and sales of all autos quickly plummeted by 18%. But sales of large pickups and SUVs collapsed by 55%. General Motors and Ford announced plans to close or suspend production at plants that made them, throwing thousands out of work. Chrysler, which had invested the most in these vehicles and the least in fuel-efficient ones, went begging to the federal government for a bailout. It was, like the banks that had caused the crisis, “too big to fail.”

One environmental writer saw some good in the disaster (Greek: “against the stars”) and predicted many public benefits in the demise of the SUV. Less gas would be burned. Drivers of all vehicles would be less likely to die in car crashes. Fewer children might be run over. There would more room on the road for everyone, perhaps less road construction and maybe even less road rage. Eventually, most people awoke from their omnipotent dreams, realized that hybrids and electric cars would be the transportation of the future and adjusted accordingly.

But the Hummer and its impersonators had already done their damage. They gave a whole generation of knuckleheads permission to further degrade the public realm by displaying even more self-destructive and/or bigoted gestures. The Republicans soon accepted that these people were also signaling their willingness to elect someone like Trump, the grandest symbol of waste, violence, hatred and comically transparent masculinity, and the grandest con man of them all. And he, master of the ignorant yet carefully framed public gesture, signaled his own sense of permission to let the dogs out of the kennel. It was another Dionysian moment.

In this story of ironic juxtapositions, perhaps the greatest of all is this 2015 admission by the Iraqi government: ISIS had captured huge caches of US-made weapons, including at least 2,300 Humvees, from Iraqi forces retreating from Mosul and had been using them against American soldiers.

Part Three

Of course, American men – young men especially – had been drag racing, running ”sideshows,” “ghost riding,” playing “chicken” and speeding through wet puddles and around curves on motorcycles while shooting at highway signs long before the SUV was invented, ever since cars themselves had been invented. And before them, generations of Good Old Boys had ridden their horses through markets and vegetable gardens, terrifying Indians, slaves and proper, church-going citizens.

All this behavior, some will say, was never anything more than the healthy expression of the essential, entrepreneurial, risk-taking, individualistic (restless and indomitable are the mythmakers’ preferred terms) American spirit that conquered the wilderness. To restrict or penalize such enthusiasm (Greek: filled with a god) is only to damp down the essence of what makes (or once made) America great, to throw out the angels along with the demons. There is wisdom in that view, as William James wrote in 1897:

Man's chief difference from the brutes lies in the exuberant excess of his subjective propensities, his preeminence over them simply and solely in the number and in the fantastic and unnecessary character of his wants – physical, moral, aesthetic, and intellectual. Had his whole life not been a quest for the superfluous, he would never have established himself as inexpugnably as he has done in the necessary…Prune down his exuberance, sober him, and you undo him.

But such people, perhaps, have never sat in a funeral service for one of those wild young guys who in his unconscious search for initiation and meaning had run a car up a tree – and have to listen to some pastor intone that the driver was now in a “better place.” And that’s not to mention the kid he ran over before he killed himself, or the trees he knocked over. A shout of the spirit can also be a cry of the soul.

We must acknowledge that it is a cry of the soul, and indigenous people such as the Gisu people of Uganda always knew this. Michael Meade writes of their concept of litima:

Litima is the violent emotion peculiar to the masculine...source of quarrels, ruthless competition, possessiveness...and brutality, and that is also the source of independence, courage...and meaningful ideals...the willful emotional force that fuels the process of becoming an individual...source of the...aggression necessary to undergo radical change. But Litima is ambiguous...both the capacity to erupt in violence and the capacity to defend others, both the aggression that breaks things and the force that builds and protects.

For much more on this subject, see Chapter Five of my book. Here are a few relevant thoughts:

Litima poses a dilemma: how to transform those raging hormones from anti-social expression into something positive? This cannot be stated too strongly: uninitiated men cause universal suffering. Either they burn with creativity or they burn everything down. This biological issue transcends debates over gender socialization. Although patriarchal conditioning legitimates and perpetuates it, their nature drives young men to violent excess.

Rites of passage provide metaphor and symbol so that boys don’t have to act their inner urges out…Boys must be transformed into men; without deliberate intervention by elders, they remain boys.

Martin Prechtel, of the Guatemalan Tzutujil Mayans, writes that his people called adolescence the “holy illness.”…Mayan youths traditionally got captured in whirlwinds of emotion: “...the madness of their holy pollinating illness made them run directly toward death and ruin.”

Malidoma Somé of Burkina Faso observes: “...they say in the village that an unruly youth is asking in his own way for someone to guide him.” An archetypal hunger for renewal drives his self-destructive behavior. Something must die. The symbolic death of initiation, however, can substitute for actual death.

All this, of course, barely touches upon the subject of initiation. And what is the relationship between initiation and these yahoos who broadcast their thuggish unconcern for the environment or for the opinions of liberals? I suppose it’s all quite personal. But consider how far American life has come from this:

There was an African tribe in which the elders deliberately delayed the initiation rites, actually withholding this difficult yet necessary experience and privilege from the adolescent males, until those boys demonstrated the intensity of their desire to be seen and accepted as adults. How did they do this? By dancing continuously outside the elders’ hut without a break for days and nights at a time. Then the elders knew that they were serious.

Let’s imagine such a world. Before we can make one, we must be able to imagine it.

 

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