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And Our Flag was Still There

by Barbara Kingsolver Thursday, Oct. 04, 2001 at 2:34 PM

the opening portion is poignant....

And Our Flag Was Still There

by Barbara Kingsolver

September 25, 2001

San Francisco Chronicle

MY DAUGHTER came home from kindergarten and

announced, "Tomorrow we all have to wear red, white

and blue."

"Why?" I asked, trying not to sound wary.

"For all the people that died when the airplanes hit

the buildings."

I fear the sound of saber-rattling, dread that not

just my taxes but even my children are being dragged

to the cause of death in the wake of death. I asked

quietly, "Why not wear black, then? Why the colors of

the flag, what does that mean?"

"It means we're a country. Just all people together."

So we sent her to school in red, white and blue,

because it felt to her like something she could do to

help people who are hurting. And because my wise

husband put a hand on my arm and said, "You can't let

hateful people steal the flag from us."

He didn't mean terrorists, he meant Americans. Like

the man in a city near us who went on a rampage

crying "I'm an American" as he shot at foreign-born

neighbors, killing a gentle Sikh man in a turban and

terrifying every brown- skinned person I know. Or the

talk-radio hosts, who are viciously bullying a

handful of members of Congress for airing sensible

skepticism at a time when the White House was

announcing preposterous things in apparent self-

interest, such as the "revelation" that terrorists

had aimed to hunt down Air Force One with a hijacked

commercial plane. Rep. Barbara Lee cast the House's

only vote against handing over virtually unlimited

war powers to one man that a whole lot of us didn't

vote for. As a consequence, so many red-blooded

Americans have now threatened to kill her, she has to

have additional bodyguards.

Patriotism seems to be falling to whoever claims it

loudest, and we're left struggling to find a

definition in a clamor of reaction. This is what I'm

hearing: Patriotism opposes the lone representative

of democracy who was brave enough to vote her

conscience instead of following an angry mob.

(Several others have confessed they wanted to vote

the same way, but chickened out.) Patriotism

threatens free speech with death. It is infuriated by

thoughtful hesitation, constructive criticism of our

leaders and pleas for peace. It despises people of

foreign birth who've spent years learning our culture

and contributing their talents to our economy. It has

specifically blamed homosexuals, feminists and the

American Civil Liberties Union. In other words, the

American flag stands for intimidation, censorship,

violence, bigotry, sexism, homophobia, and shoving

the Constitution through a paper shredder? Who

are we calling terrorists here? Outsiders can destroy

airplanes and buildings, but it is only we, the

people, who have the power to demolish our own

ideals.

It's a fact of our culture that the loudest mouths

get the most airplay, and the loudmouths are saying

now that in times of crisis it is treasonous to

question our leaders. Nonsense. That kind of thinking

let fascism grow out of the international depression

of the 1930s. In critical times, our leaders need

most to be influenced by the moderating force of

dissent. That is the basis of democracy, in sickness

and in health, and especially when national choices

are difficult, and bear grave consequences.

It occurs to me that my patriotic duty is to

recapture my flag from the men now waving it in the

name of jingoism and censorship. This isn't easy for

me.

The last time I looked at a flag with unambiguous

pride, I was 13. Right after that, Vietnam began

teaching me lessons in ambiguity, and the lessons

have kept coming. I've learned of things my

government has done to the world that made me direly

ashamed. I've been further alienated from my flag by

people who waved it at me declaring I should love it

or leave it. I search my soul and find I cannot love

killing for any reason. When I look at the flag, I

see it illuminated by the rocket's red glare.

This is why the warmongers so easily gain the upper

hand in the patriot game: Our nation was established

with a fight for independence, so our iconography

grew out of war. Our national anthem celebrates it;

our language of patriotism is inseparable from a

battle cry. Our every military campaign is still

launched with phrases about men dying for the

freedoms we hold dear, even when this is impossible

to square with reality. In the Persian Gulf War we

rushed to the aid of Kuwait, a monarchy in which

women enjoyed approximately the same rights as a 19th

century American slave. The values we fought for and

won there are best understood, I think, by oil

companies. Meanwhile, a country of civilians was

devastated, and remains destroyed.

Stating these realities does not violate the

principles of liberty, equality, and freedom of

speech; it exercises them, and by exercise we grow

stronger. I would like to stand up for my flag and

wave it over a few things I believe in, including but

not limited to the protection of dissenting points of

view. After 225 years, I vote to retire the rocket's

red glare and the bullet wound as obsolete symbols of

Old Glory. We desperately need a new iconography of

patriotism. I propose we rip stripes of cloth from

the uniforms of public servants who rescued the

injured and panic-stricken, remaining at their post

until it fell down on them. The red glare of candles

held in vigils everywhere as peace-loving people pray

for the bereaved, and plead for compassion and

restraint. The blood donated to the Red Cross. The

stars of film and theater and music who are using

their influence to raise money for recovery. The

small hands of schoolchildren collecting pennies,

toothpaste, teddy bears, anything they think might

help the kids who've lost their moms and dads.

My town, Tucson, Ariz., has become famous for a

simple gesture in which some 8,000 people wearing

red, white or blue T-shirts assembled themselves in

the shape of a flag on a baseball field and had their

photograph taken from above. That picture has begun

to turn up everywhere, but we saw it first on our

newspaper's front page. Our family stood in silence

for a minute looking at that photo of a human flag,

trying to know what to make of it. Then my teenage

daughter, who has a quick mind for numbers and a

sensitive heart, did an interesting thing. She laid

her hand over a quarter of the picture, leaving

visible more or less 6,000 people, and said, "That

many are dead." We stared at what that looked like --

all those innocent souls, multi-colored and packed

into a conjoined destiny -- and shuddered at the one

simple truth behind all the noise, which is that so

many beloved people have suddenly gone from us. That

is my flag, and that's what it means: We're all just

people together.

Barbara Kingsolver is the author of nine books

including "The Poisonwood Bible," (Harperflamingo,

1999).

=============================

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