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Jewish World Review April 2, 2002/ 20 Nisan, 5762

Norah Vincent

Norah Vincent
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Consumer Reports

Where There's No Big Deal Over Flag-Waving | On a recent walk through my neighborhood, I came across an impromptu art installation of the sort you see a lot of in New York's Greenwich Village, the sort you suspect must be expressing a widely held local view, because after several days, it hasn't been demolished or defaced. It was a large pile of dog dung with a tiny American flag stuck in it, fluttering ingloriously in the breeze.

This is the general bohemian view, the one you hear most often expressed in my corner of the world, which, granted, may be among the most lefty in this country. Even the wealthy are mostly staunch liberals; only Hollywood could compete, dollars for Democrats.

And then, of course, there's the cultural elite, the intellectuals and the artists, rich and poor. Many reside here and, as one character in Edward Albee's new Broadway play "The Goat" put it, many consider themselves to be more democratic than the Democrats. They do not consider themselves patriots. They wouldn't be caught dead waving flags. Their views can be typified by the Nation columnist Katha Pollit, who reported that she had told her daughter that "the flag stands for jingoism and vengeance and war," and novelist Barbara Kingsolver, who feels "alienated" by the flag because she associates it primarily with war.

Of course, not everyone in my neighborhood feels this way. There is the other extreme, and it is extreme. Even six months after the Sept. 11 attacks, the curio shops are brimming with American flag T-shirts, bandannas, napkins, ski hats, even oversized GI Joe dolls that dance while singing "God Bless America."

Seeing all this, you'd almost think, along with the left elites, that the American flag stands for nothing more than capitalism, that patriotism equals consumerism.

But is this what the flag stands for?

It doesn't have to, any more than it has to stand for war and jingoism and bigotry. If you go into the third- or fourth-generation immigrant urban neighborhoods like the Rockaways in New York or South Boston or the Hamtramck section of Detroit, you'll see an altogether different kind of patriotism on display, one closer to the ideal than either the ironic or the quick-buck versions, one that you'll also find in small towns and suburbs across America.

It's not ostentatious. It's not angry. It's not commercial. It's just there; an unobtrusive, often weather-torn and faded flag, perched over the porch or pasted in the smudged window, saying something quite simple, not clever or hotheaded.

When you talk to the shop owners and families who live and work in these places, many will tell you the same thing: Their relationship to their country is not unlike their relationship to their spouses or family members. It's a love that persists through the ugly times and encompasses the faults and failures of a government that is far from perfect. It's a love that criticizes and fights against the human mistakes that threaten our Bill of Rights.

But it's also a love that imbues the flag with fair symbolism, a balanced view of the good and the bad that might not prompt them to wave it but could never induce them to burn it or stick it in a pile of dog dung.

JWR contributor Norah Vincent is a New York writer and co-author of The Instant Intellectual: The Quick & Easy Guide to Sounding Smart & Cultured. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2001, Norah Vincent