Orgy in Red, White & Blue
The Americans display flags. The Stars and Strips are waving everywhere in the USA. Chauvinism? Dangerous patriotism? Likely not. It is the wish for identity.
[This contains a passing mention of Scientology.]
November 5, 2001
by Bernhard Poetter
The photograph made many cover stories: in the middle of the ruins of the World Trade Center, fire department personnel hoisted the American flag. The picture is achieving a symbolic significance similar to what is likely the most famous photograph from the Second World War, in which the US soldiers put their flag on Iwo Jima. And as always in times of war, the USA is engulfed in a sea of flags: the Stars and Stripes are in front yards and government offices, on cars and t-shirts, hanging from bridges and antennas, in front of schools and churches. The US flag has become a hot selling item.
Viewed from Germany, this orgy in red, white and blue raises misapprehension and mistrust. Evaluations from "embarrassing" to "Hollywood glitz" are issued from a country that has no pet name for its own flag other than "black-red-gold." Any one of us that hangs out a flag is, a the minimum, a rightwing radical. The flag-waving in the USA is regarded by many as a general mobilization by the people. And we know, above all, that "Patriot" is American for an air defense missile.
For good reason the rest of the world accuses the USA of ignorant arrogance when it comes to its judgment of foreign cultures. Yet European and especially the German sensitivities go in the same direction. Because he who flogs the American need to gather round their flag in times of crisis has already committed the first mistake of cultural ignorance: projecting oneself on others.
With little exception, the people who live between New York and Los Angeles do not understand how Europe functions, where dozens of countries with dozens of ethic groups cohabitate in a tight space and who have waged wars for centuries. On the other side, many Europeans cannot comprehend the USA because they gauge by their own standards and they fail to see "culture." As a matter of fact, that is exactly where the central problem lies in the USA: the lack of a binding, obligatory identification by which, with nothing else, one can classify oneself as a citizen of society and of the country. For these cultural roots, Europeans naturally rely on a centuries-old, often negative litany of values: common history, tradition, kinship and religion. The USA is lacking any sufficient measure of theses. When the United States wants to reassure itself in times of crisis, its people reach for - the flag. The fact that many political and cultural symbols of the USA are falsely decoded by Europeans and Germans is all the more surprising as many, especially western, Germans claim to "know the country" [of the United States] because of their Americanophilist socialization and many trips to the USA. Some have practically grown up on the "streets of San Francisco" or in "Dallas."
Separated by an ocean and 300 years of different history, there are also other things that seem unusual to us. Those gun laws look crazy to us - they're a reaction to the oppression of the English king back in colonial times. Same thing with the phobia about a strong central government that levies taxes - one of the reasons for the colonies to shed themselves of England. When the US State Department chastises the Federal Republic because the Scientology cult is under surveillance here, the Germans are surprised - and forget that religious freedom was one of the motivating factors that drove the first white settlers into North America. The high costs of kindergartens and universities there seem unjust to us - and we forget that because of this the individual income tax in the USA is significantly lower. As spoiled Europeans we gnash our teeth before the US immigration agents and let them ask us foolish question - and don't notice that after we arrive there is hardly any more monitoring, while at home we are used to required reports and being ID'd. We laugh about a system in which the candidate with fewer votes wins - and forget that our history of parliamentarism has been in existence for only half the last century, that we were plunged into barbarism against which our mothers and fathers had to defend themselves and from which the Americans had to liberate us. Finally, we shake our heads at the American fixation on economic matters. We don't see that in a nation without a close social network, everybody has to fight to keep their head above water - by hook or by crook.
"Why don't the Americans change that?" we ask. That is not so often meant to begin a discussion as it is a purely theoretical observation. We are so sure that our system which is the best - just like the Americans are. They are just as stubborn and irreconcilably resigned to the fact that they have the best society on earth. In times of crisis they don't doubt in their economic system, their bankrupt social state or their gun laws, nor in the social fabric that holds the USA together. But what is that [fabric]? "The business of America is business," said President Calvin Coolidge in 1925. As a matter of fact, the endeavor for profit wends its way through American society like a common thread. But a national identity does not arise as a result of the greatest profit nor from the highest stocks; on the contrary, those increase the differences between the rich and the poor. US trend researcher Jeremy Rifkin has pointed out that the market economy can only function if identity and trust first exist in society. That means nation-building must come before profit.
The "American Spirit" is not founded on tradition, politics or economy. The cohesiveness of the USA is found in other forms at which the Europeans would rather turn up their noses: the Hollywood culture machine creates productions that show an American (and recently a globalized) identity. Because he recognized the power pictures have for politics, Senator McCarthy took an extra hard look at Hollywood in his search for "un-American activities" back in the 1950s. But the culture industries of populism, life-style and sports also supply the USA with the myths and dreams required for national consciousness. The red, white and blue glue is also found uniformly in schools and on highways, in the ever more monotonous architecture of the cities and in McDonald's branches, which offer standardized hamburgers in Florida that look the same as they do in Alaska.
What really holds the patriotism of the country together is a continent full of individualists. The Star Spangled Banner is one of the less visible (and in the National Anthem less audible) symbols of the unity of 278 million people, who could hardly be more different in terms of interests, origin, class, race or religion. The flag is the generally acknowledged symbol of a civil religion with which the USA's political elite state their way of doing business, thus assuring themselves of popular agreement. The saints of this secular country is the community. Their symbol is the Flag. Those who publicly burn it destroy what is more than just fabric for most American, they are attacking the unity of the entire country. Nevertheless, burning the flag is permitted by the Supreme Court as freedom of speech.
Naturally US military and politician use the flag for narrow-minded shows of patriotism. In the USA, the focus on one's own society often turns into a dance around the Golden Calf and intentionally and unintentionally clouds problems in one's own country and in the world. Today the words of Heiner Geissler apply equally on both sides of the Atlantic, "When the flag flies, the mind follows the call the bugle." Nevertheless the flag-bearing Americans these days strive for something more than chauvinism and the yearning for retribution. The Star Spangled Banner is a characteristic trait, it is a wish and a will, as shown by both critics and renegade conservatives: in "Easy Rider" Peter Fonda played a flipped-out hippie who wore a flag on his motorcycle helmet and on his gas tank. Showing the flag this way does not at all translate into German. Imagine Dieter Kunzelmann and Kommune 1 decked out in black, red and gold.
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