Put a flag on it!Posted: March 7, 2014
Given the opportunity to go back in time to the summer of 2001 and invest in the manufacture of American flags, would you? I suppose that the question needs a bit more detail: You have the technology to go back in time, but only to the summer of 2001. While you are there, the only thing you can do is buy stock in a company that makes American flags and decorative magnets for automobiles. You have no power to substantially change any events and buying the stock does not change anything about the present except for how much money you have. Do you buy that stock?
I suspect that there are two common responses to this hypothetical: “Of course. I’d be foolish not to collect big ol’ dividends from the giant uptick in American flag sales,” and “No. The recent proliferation of flag-waving distresses me. Sights of streets lined with the national flag look shockingly similar to images from Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia. Over-the-top nationalism and militarism is a serious problem in this country and I want nothing to do with it.”
Early 19th century American sculptor Horatio Greenough offers another reason not to invest in the mass-marketing of American flags: when the flag is everywhere, it loses any special meaning. (It is important to note that Greenough’s complaint came at a time when seeing five American flags in a single day seemed excessive; he could scarcely have imagined the modern applications.) Greenough’s essay Aesthetics in Washington includes a section entitled The Desecration of the Flag. Therein, Greenough explains why he thinks that the flag has no place at taverns or peepshows or even private homes: the flag is desecrated by being used simply as an ornament by anybody and everybody. It is a very special symbol and to have it plastered everywhere greatly diminishes how special it is.
Some might argue that as a free and democratic people, Americans have a right to use the flag however they see fit. Greenough seems reluctant to allow that. But he doesn’t have to. Even if people do have a right to use the flag, that doesn’t make it right. People have a right to “excessive beer-drinking and other gluttonies”, but that doesn’t mean that they should. Asserting the right to fly the flag or be rude or to curse is just bootstrapping simple barbarism to the noble concept of freedom, something the flag once stood for.
Beer of the Week: Tucher Helles Hefe Weizen – This past summer, I saw several American flag beer cans. Can anybody honestly say that using the flag as a marketing gimmick for cheap beer doesn’t cheapen the flag itself? Greenough would be disgusted to see the American flag in the form of a crumpled Budweiser can on the side of the road. Astute observers will notice that the design of the Tucher Helles Hefe Weizen can is patterned after the flag of Bavaria. But Tucher’s can has a problem that even worse than it’s dubious use of the Bavarian flag; the can claims this beer is brewed “in accordance with the Reinheitsgebot.” I seem to mention this former law quite often. I know that it is just a marketing tactic to make the beer sound natural and pure, but when it is patently false it just irks me. Wheat was not an acceptable ingredient under the Reinheitsgebot (neither was yeast, but that is another issue,) so it is impossible for a hefeweizen to comply with the law. False advertising not withstanding, the beer is alright. It is light and cloudy and it smells of banana. The flavor matches the smell exactly, which is actually a bit of a shame because it doesn’t really have any spice or bite at all; it is just sweet and smooth. It is missing something, but what it does have is pretty good.
Reading of the week: The Desecration of the Flag by Horatio Greenough – This is the second reading choice from an author mentioned in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s English Traits. Therein, Emerson wrote that “Greenough was a superior man, ardent and eloquent, and all his opinions had elevation and magnanimity.” He was also, by Emerson’s account, very handsome. The Desecration of the Flag is a section of an essay entitled Aesthetics in Washington, which also includes an interesting architectural critique of the Washington Monument.
Question of the week: Would you go back in time and invest in the flag company?
Alternatively: Is it not profoundly ironic that many of the people who would purchase American flag underpants or special edition American flag beers are the people who claim the most respect for the flag itself? (Unfortunately, I suspect that this hypothetical person is not self-aware enough to express his opinions about the flag in this way: “Flag burning should be a crime and I regard it in no way hypocritical that I leave shit stains on a pair of boxers that are designed to look like Old Glory.”)