Conflict seems to be a constant in the world, certainly in human society, certainly in politics: politics being groups maneuvering to control the musical chairs game of grab the scarce resources, don’t share except with this or that nefariously cooperating faction. Around 1970 the political conflicts were palpable, even far from where the bombs were being dropped.
In 1970 bk was just a few years old. I’d been fired from teaching at Colby, immediately in the wake of having been rehired by Colby for a third and final year of teaching there. The school newspaper had exclaimed over the English Department’s purge of 50% of its membership: those without tenure, those who had stood in silent protest on the steps of the campus chapel. Actually, the purge was greater than 50%: the newspaper hadn’t known that I too was purged.
Back in New York Hilary, bk, and pk were straddling two apartments: Hilary’s old apartment on Riverside at 116th Street, the apartment in which I first met Hilary, and her mother’s apartment a few doors up Claremont Avenue: the most Parisian block in New York travelers assured me. Hilary’s mother was off in Geneva for the year, and Hilary and I were asked to keep any eye on the Claremont Avenue apartment: Columbia faculty housing, her mother being married to a Columbia prof. Claremont was quiet, but the rest of NY was loud: loud with taxis covered with US flag symbols, bullying everybody who wasn’t wearing a flag.
bk accompanies me as I go out to walk somewhere down Broadway, maybe to the grocery store. At the last moment he grabs a little flag, the kind on a toothpick you’d stick into a cake. The timing was a son of a bitch: Nixon’s US had just been exposed for bombing Laos and Cambodia: in violation of I don’t remember how many treaties. Somehow it was supposed to be legal for the US to bomb and napalm Vietnam, to shoot and stab Vietnamese, but illegal to bomb Vietnam’s neighbors. But the “enemy” doesn’t recognize borders, squawked the hawks: and as pk was forever joking in those days, joking to no avail, if it was alright to violate God’s and man’s law to kill Communists, and to invade countries where Communists were active, how come we didn’t bomb France, and Italy, move Congress into Versailles: France was full of Communists too!
Anyway: lines were drawn. Those who wanted to bomb, bomb anything, anywhere, the hell with law, waved flags, and those who wanted society to calm down, think, reflect, look before leaping, were embarrassed by the flag waving.
Alfred Kazin has just written an article in NYR in which he reviewed US law with regard to display of the US flag. The taxi drivers were all guilty of desecration of the flag the way they stuck flags on their taxi front fenders. But the hawks didn’t care: there were only two catergories of person: with us / against us: and anyone not foaming at the mouth sticking flags in people’s eye was against us.
Well, I was against us, against that aspect of us, and I was bravely paying the tax: getting fired (turns out I’d been blackballed too: although that detail is moot: one could say I’d blackballed myself by taking any kind of a stand against the monopolizers of violence also wanting to monopolize morality. Kill a Commie for Christ!)
So here’s me, the impoverished, betrayed intellectual, about to discover that I was being betrayed by the university in which I studied as well as by the college in which I’d taught, in permanent Coventry (the mythical place where Brits put nonconformists), and here’s bk, three years old: and bk grabs a little flag, and bears it in his hand as we proceed south on Claremont Avenue.
I told my army buddy Phil the story later: Phil, the great war hater, the great liberal, the defiant dove, and Phil said, “Why didn’t you just take it away from him?”!
And that reminded me of the joke about the liberal debating the conservative on the subject of censorship: the liberal speaks first, spouting rhetoric, touting freedom, and choice: and the conservative takes the stage, sets up a movie screen, and projects some child-porn … The liberal knocks the screen down, screaming “How dare you?”
But it could have been Phil who told me that joke!
pk’s point is not only that I don’t approve of our political behavior, that I don’t endorse our military behavior, but that we also, not even the “best” of us, always know what we mean or what we do.
There was a definite conflict there: on the one hand, I opposed US Vietnam policies; on the other hand I supported my son’s right to carry something in his hand, even where the toddler can’t possibly understand what the symbolisms are all about! When the Beetles came out with theSgt. Pepper album, I didn’t want censors testing to see if Paul, John, George, or Ringo (and their handlers) all know the multiple meanings of all the symbolic crap that jammed that cover design.
Christians can wear crosses all they want, but should Christians burn at the stake someone who comes into the congregation wearing a blouse with a print design that hints at a Bodhisattva? or an ankh? or a cloven hoof? anything non-kosher? anything not halal?
But my deciding against insisting on a father’s power when bk carried a little party flag the day after Nixon violated more international and human and Christian and Jewish … laws primarily I believe had to do with semiotics: I didn’t want bk to develop a complex about flags!
Gregory Bateson points out that the person who burns the flag may be reifying the symbol in exactly the same way as the person who wants to burn the flag burner: both may feel that this piece of cloth and dye is their country!
I didn’t want bk to care about the flag one way or the other. So I let him carry it, and wave it, clueless to (99% of) the portent(s)
And these days, I’m proud to report, bk understands many such a symbol most admirably: and I email him a link to this post immediately.
Within the hour bk emailed back that he remembered the story, told it often, but hadn’t remembered the incident taking place on Flag Day.
No, no: excuse me, I didn’t intentionally mislead. I don’t know what day it was, I don’t clog my head with dates any more than I clog my hands with flags. There was a one in three-sixty-five-and-a-fraction chance that that day’s actions happened to match some secular holy day.
(Watched a funny movie last night where Billie Burke literally believes some journalist’s mot that Christmas was being postponed that year.
The kleptocrats really do behave as though they can rewrite the calendar, in utter ignorance of this, that, and the other tradition.)
bk added a similar story about Benjamin Tucker Marcus, his son, my grandson, now four-something. It would be nice if bk inserted that story here as a comment.
Ah, another PS: my image above of people sticking flags on a stick in other people’s eyes reminds me of a literary association vivid in my life but not in my recall this morning as I drafted the above: in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 we have an officer who wears an eye patch. We finally learn that his eye had been poked out by an old Italian man lining the street of the military parade, waving a rose full of thorns, and jabbing it at the invading / liberating Americans: sabotage under cover of enthusiasm: beautiful. That same old anarchist remembered sticking a Nazi officer with a sprig of edelweiss in an earlier parade of invasion / liberation.