I’m curious. Why’s the US flag everywhere? Why’s it on every single subway carriage? Why’s it on every MTA bus in New York? Surely only a country insecure as to its authenticity and its foundation, surely only a country doubting itself as to its origins and its rights as such, needs to display its nomenclature and rattle its symbols so much.
In Ireland, apart from the fact that the Tricolour became associated with its display by the Nationalist / Republican side during the Northern Ireland Troubles (and, in a tit-for-tat pissing match to mark territory, the Union Jack was/is flown over Unionist/Loyalist areas. My biggest chill came when driving through areas where the pavement edges were painted red, white and blue – and, no, we’re not talking the Stars and Stripes, here, we’re talking Maggie’s flag, and I won’t be working on her farm, neither), in Ireland, maybe a reason why the flag isn’t so amply needed is because Ireland as a nation – if not a reality in the modern sense – existed even when tribal chiefs were fighting over territory 800 years ago or more. I.e., they all agreed that they were from the same country, and that that country existed, the Hill of Tara as its spiritual centre. It was a truth so self-evident it didn’t need to be centralised. And that was exactly where the Elizabethans, a specialised crew of pirates, privateers and terrorists under a supreme Queen Bitch, came calling, a scabby venereal pox upon their name. (Francis Drake was a hero at home, but a pirate to Philip II – Elizabeth I’s secret weapon, her black ops squad, as it were.)
(Am I exaggerating? I would be curious to hear as to the first reference to Ireland in the historical record. Of course, it was Hibernia to the Romans, and so far beyond their ken that they never went there. Some would say it was psychologically so “other”, so much “beyond” the mental marker denoted by Hadrian’s Wall, that the Romies weren’t interested. Some try to use that as a putdown, but to no avail, because that “otherness” gives the Irish a perverse pride.) What I am really getting at is the fact that despite it being a loose confederacy of tribal areas and shifting allegiances, in which Gaelic, Latin, French (once the auld Normans landed in Wexford) were spoken, it is generally acknowledged that the dwellers of that island, as much as they fought together over who had the biggest and most beautiful herd of cattle (see the Táin), they always had a self-concept as being Irish. They had their language – Gaelic was written before English even existed – their customs, their beliefs, their laws (in which a woman was granted many reasons for divorce). My favourite? The poet was the only one who could wear more colours than the king. That was a society in which the arts were honoured.
It is curious that an ex-colony doesn’t need to be so self-symbolic, whereas another ex-colony does need to be. (Curious, too, how the U.S. seems to forget its post-colonial status. Pride, though, is often the refuge of shame.) Of course, many of the proliferating flags during the invasion of Iraq was an assertion along the lines of “Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right” (Randolph Churchill to an Orange rally against Home Rule in 1886). In other words, “we will justify our actions by creating the truth that justifies them before, during and after those actions are enacted.” Whew. Is that a circular syllogism, or what? (No wonder I didn’t do that well in 1st year philosophy in U.C.D.)
Inevitably, what it reminds me of is Manifest Destiny (and what is the Iraq War, but US Manifest Destiny insidiously creeping beyond US borders – a violation of Jean Luc Picard’s support of the Prime Directive): a concept that began in dubious creation became (“from sea to shining sea”), a self-justifying premise, a perpetual motion machine, the idea that “this continent is ours for the taking.” (Hampton Sides’ Book Blood and Thunder is a great book to read on Kit Carson, and the era of Manifest Destiny.) I believe that the psychologists among us would pant at the fact that anywhere there is puffed-up pride, anywhere there is inflation, there is a hidden shame. (I remember so well (“in the Chelsea Hotel”? – No, no, wrong song, dammit!) in elementary school in Connecticut in the early-to-mid 1980s, I remember the extent to which “confidence” was a prized virtue, a haloed name, among the parents of Lord of the Flies children, but it was a confidence than ran iron-shod over other people, namely, the quieter children. How the microcosm reflect the macrocosm… Not much has changed, M’Lord.)
So, what is the United States’ smelliest wound? Not Slavery. Why, pray tell? Well, because Slavery’s sins and horrors have, to some extent, been aired due to the fact that black people in the US have a voice, and a powerful lobby in the lobby in Washington. (Not powerful enough, some would say; I’m no expert, but the voice is listened to, and it has been noticed that when mobilised, it’s a voice that wins presidential elections.) The genocide of Native America stinks like gangrene in a wound that’s been packed with rotten dressing in the body politic, and then forgotten by the doctors. Well, we all know this. But, it is curious to me that of all the voices in the United States, the voice that was here first is the quietest.
When you’re in South America, people ask you “do you like Paraguay?” – do you like my country? the same as we Irish used to ask, at least until the Boom’s overconfidence came along. Though, maybe we’re asking again. (In one embarrassing incident, a street-vendor one deserted Easter Sunday in Ciudad del Este asked me if you can buy Paraguayan Guaranis in foreign banks. I think I fudged and told him yes, rather than admit that his country’s currency is so small that it can only be bought and sold on its borders with its infinitely more powerful neighbours.) In Kansas, and in parts of New Mexico, people have asked me, half-hopeful, half-afraid, but welcoming in the human humility of that asking. I was going to say that New York City doesn’t ask, because I wanted to make the point that people are so priapically cocksure sure that it is the best place not only on the North American continent, but in the world. But then, feck it, several people at a party on Central Park West on Saturday night asked me how I liked New York, thus disproving my thesis. (One of them a vegan who can’t travel much due to dietary concerns.) I stepped outside for a breath of air, and enjoyed the black trees with snow on them outside the front door. The beauty, and privilege, of “the Park”. Is there any other Park? Is there any other city?
[* P.S. Should have written this in the months after the 11th of September, when there were many more flags around. Almost 10 years too late. Oh well.]