Throughout his life, my gentle father mostly avoided conflict. But one summer, almost thirty years ago, we had what I would call an argument.
On July 25, 1990, Rosanne Barr sang the national anthem before a San Diego Padres game. It went poorly. As Barr later recalled in a Washington Post interview, she is actually a fine singer, and she’d intended to perform the anthem seriously. But on that notorious night, she’d started off too high and soon found herself “screeching.” Rather than starting over, she decided to push on through, growing increasingly distraught as boos enveloped her and every note came out more horrible than the last. Then she made an even worse mistake. She had planned to pause for a respectful interval after the song was over, and then add a comedy “tribute to baseball players.” By this point, though, her timing was way off. As her final scream dwindled away, she hastily grabbed her crotch and spat. Amid a thunderstorm of verbal abuse and hurled bottles, officials hustled her and her son out of the stadium. On the eve of the first gulf war, President George H. W. Bush rebuked her, and for years afterward, she endured a string of professional retaliations and required police protection.
Barr had committed, it was nearly universally agreed, a desecration. Not only had she screeched the anthem, she’d obscenely spat on it and the flag it celebrates—in other words, on America itself.
“She shouldn’t have done that,” my father said quietly, a few days later. “That wasn’t right.”
It seems to me that it was evening. We were in my parents’ back yard, winding down a picnic amid humid green shadows and the piercing scent of citronella. I had come back to Ohio for the semi-annual filial visit. A young graduate student at U.C. Berkeley, I was giddy with my sudden understanding of the world via postmodern literary theory. I explained to my father why he was mistaken.
“The signifier is only arbitrarily connected to the signified, by means of contingent power relations,” I said (or something like that). “The anthem isn’t America. It’s only a song. Just like the flag is only a piece of cloth. Who cares if someone spits on it, or burns it?” I may have gone on to say that Barr was essentially making the same point (even if, it turns out, that wasn’t her intention). Isn’t this all bullshit?, she seemed to ask. Why do we sing this larynx-convulsing song—based on a drinking song, no less—before settling in to watch grown men swing at and mostly miss a little ball with a stick? Why do these celebrated athletes get away with spitting and crotch-grabbing while millions are watching them on TV, when they’d be thrown out of a restaurant for doing the very same? I probably also mentioned the gender politics of defining women’s vs. men’s “vulgarity.” My mother, a vocal liberal, took my side. I think she was surprised, as I was, that my dad would espouse such a position. He, too, was quite liberal in other matters. Why did he even care about this manufactured circus?
“It’s an insult to those who serve their country,” he said.
The argument ended then. Like my dad, I really wasn’t much for conflict. And at that moment, high as I was on deconstructionist bravado, I realized why my father believed in those supposedly empty signifiers. As a young Navy officer, he had been deployed to Hawaii in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. Luckily, he’d never seen combat. There’d been a tsunami, he’d sometimes recount, and he and some other men had gone out in a small boat to look for survivors. They’d found none. Otherwise, they’d spent their time exploring the mountains, and on one ill-fated outing, he’d fallen into a treetop. That was about it, he’d say, with a little laugh. He had found Hawaii beautiful. He had never been back.
Yet even as he’d always minimized his own military service (or perhaps because he felt it had been minimal), the experience had forever shaped the way he read certain symbols. That garish piece of cloth and that weird song embodied something otherwise inexpressible, especially for a taciturn Midwestern man: his respect and gratitude for all who offered their lives for the nation. Intentionally or not, as our soldiers prepared for a new war that many of us thought was wrong, Barr had mocked those very real—and to my father, sacred—emotions. And so had I.
But I had argued with my father for another reason, which I think I stopped myself from bringing up. In truth, I didn’t believe those signifiers were empty, either. I just didn’t like what they contained. I actually approved of Barr’s anthem act, not as a postmodern prank, but as an apparent expression of righteous anger. Today, I still feel drawn toward that opinion.
On May 26th, 2017, Jeremy Joseph Christian allegedly murdered two men on a Portland train as they defended two young women from his racist tirade. In April, Christian had participated in a white-supremacist rally, wearing a 1776 flag as a cape, shouting the n-word, and delivering Nazi salutes. As Sinclair Lewis (or, possibly, someone else) famously stated, “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” Although the fortuitously named Christian seems to consider himself a pagan, he otherwise fulfills the prediction. That whoever issued the warning likely did so in the 1930s shows that many left-of-center Americans have long viewed the flag—or at least its use in certain circumstances by certain people—with varying degrees of distaste or alarm.
That’s pretty much true of me. For as long as I can remember, whenever I’ve noticed a flag snapping in the breeze over a public building or plastered on the tailgate of a pickup, I’ve tended not to flush with pride, but to flinch—immediately thinking of people like Jeremy Christian, along with the many more powerful and discreet figures who embed his views in policy. And then I flinch again, because I regret that automatic first response. I recall, once again, that I’ve too easily ceded control of a language that I believe should—despite its often violent and oppressive history—belong to everyone else, representing not the worst among us, but the best. Christian and his enablers may believe the flag points only to them. They may think it’s their rightful mantle as the ultimate patriots—as Christian shouted at his first court appearance, “You call it terrorism, I call it patriotism!” But my father, who died in 2006, would consider Christian’s flag-cape incongruent; he’d hear “patriotism” in Christian’s voice as dissonance. He’d know that this man desecrated America more thoroughly than Roseanne Barr ever did—although, in her recent reincarnation as a “racist Twitter troll,” she may still do real damage.
Christian’s symbolic sacrileges matter, though his actions have been infinitely worse, because they can cause us to perceive and communicate our own values as reactions, rather than first principles. It’s not a new idea that the left must “take back” the language of patriotism. One sees bumper stickers proclaiming “Peace is patriotic,” or the occasional flag sticker on a Prius’ back window. But these statements feel defensive, reinforcing the counternarrative by shouting, “me, too!” We can’t win a merely semantic tug-of-war (“you call it x, I call it y”). First, I believe, we must feel the language in our bones. It must be sacred to us.
To that end, I offer one final desecration image, both hideous and comic, tragic and—bear with me—surprisingly useful for one small project I have begun.
At a rally in Tampa, in June 2016, our president, then the presumptive Republican nominee, added his own special dimension to the portrait of American fascism: he wrapped himself around an American flag. Over the ensuing year, it has become ever more apparent that this full-body flag-hug (not his first, The Hill tells us), did not represent Trump’s love for America. Speaking of grabbing crotches, it’s difficult not to see, in place of that flag, one of the many unwilling women he has so proudly sexually assaulted. And that makes sense. To him, the flag, like every person, object, and creature in this universe and all others, represents only a potential extension of himself—an empty vessel waiting to receive his Trumpian essence. The flag-hug is a blissful self-caress. In his mind, there is nothing outside of, or other than, Trump.
In a chilling recent essay, “The Autocrat’s Language,” Masha Gessen writes:
Trump … has a talent for using words in ways that make them mean nothing. Everyone is great and everything is tremendous. Any word can be given or taken away. NATO can be “obsolete” and then “no longer obsolete” … And then there is Trump’s ability to take words and throw them into a pile that means nothing. […]
Trump’s word-piles fill public space with static. This is like having the air we breathe replaced with carbon monoxide. It is deadly. This space that he is polluting is the space of our shared reality. This is what language is for: to enable you to name “secateurs” [garden shears], buy them, and use them. To make it possible for a surgeon to name “scalpel” and have it placed in her open palm. To make sure that a mother can understand the story her child tells her when she comes home from school, or a judge can evaluate a case being made. None of this is possible when words mean nothing.
Hugging the flag, our president throws it on the heap of emptied language. By claiming it for—or as—himself, he claims the right to annihilate the meaning of any symbol, any time. Gessen rightly calls his anti-speech “polluting.” It doesn’t matter whether Trump is doing it deliberately to secure his own authoritarian power, or his extreme narcissism allows him no other path. When a ruler repeatedly desecrates not only particular words, but language itself, Gessen tells us, civilizations die. In the final paragraph, she warns:
I fear that there will come a time when we, individually or in groups, discard certain words because they have been robbed of their ability to mean something. I can give up “tremendous.” But it’s our job to make sure that we enter the post-Trump future with other words that still have meaning: “law,” “freedom,” “truth,” “power,” “responsibility,” “life,” “death,” “fifty-nine,” “president,” “presidential,” “unprecedented,” “lie,” “fact,” “war,” “peace,” “democracy,” “justice,” “love,” “secateurs.”
At this crisis point, fighting for our country literally entails fighting for meaning—not just particular meanings of certain words or symbols, but meaning as such. That’s why we must love meaning, and our ability to make and understand it, even more than our president loves himself. And as Trump’s daily desecrations throw all we’ve taken for granted about our country into sharp relief, I think we’ll discover how much we need the particular American language that some of us once ignored or even despised. As he callously dumps the vessels out, we can reverently refill them.
To that end, here’s the plan I’ve undertaken. I know I will still cringe every time I see a flag—now more than ever. But right after that, I will straighten up, calm down, and imagine my father standing quietly beside me. I’ll remember his humility and humanity, as he lived and as he lay shockingly ill and dying. His wish (as I imagine it) to have done more for his nation and his family—though it’s my opinion that he did enough. In time, I may move on to picturing other American people or things I love: a beautiful place our country has created or preserved; a work of art I can’t live without; large and small acts of heroism, sacrifice, defiance, or dignity. All of this is America, and all sacred. At the moment, though, to think of everything we stand to lose—and all we have left to make and do—feels overwhelming. In our fraught time, too much meaning may be just as paralyzing as too little.
So I will begin here, with this one little-known American. For today, he is the meaning I hold close. To keep on marching, calling, writing, commiserating, and hoping for tomorrow.