Barbara Kingsolver on Patriotism

Barbara Kingsolver on Patriotism

Published on Tuesday, September 25, 2001 in the San Francisco Chronicle
And Our Flag Was Still There
by Barbara Kingsolver

MY DAUGHTER came home from kindergarten and announced, "Tomorrow
we all have to wear red, white and blue."

"Why?" I asked, trying not to sound wary.

"For all the people that died when the airplanes hit the buildings."

I fear the sound of saber-rattling, dread that not just my taxes but even my
children are being dragged to the cause of death in the wake of death. I
asked quietly, "Why not wear black, then? Why the colors of the flag, what
does that mean?"

"It means we're a country. Just all people together."

So we sent her to school in red, white and blue, because it felt to her like
something she could do to help people who are hurting. And because my wise
husband put a hand on my arm and said, "You can't let hateful people steal
the flag from us."

He didn't mean terrorists, he meant Americans. Like the man in a city near
us who went on a rampage crying "I'm an American" as he shot at foreign-born
neighbors, killing a gentle Sikh man in a turban and terrifying every brown-
skinned person I know. Or the talk-radio hosts, who are viciously bullying a
handful of members of Congress for airing sensible skepticism at a time when
the White House was announcing preposterous things in apparent
self-interest, such as the "revelation" that terrorists had aimed to hunt
down Air Force One with a hijacked commercial plane. Rep. Barbara Lee
cast the House's only vote against handing over virtually unlimited war powers to
one man that a whole lot of us didn't vote for. As a consequence, so many
red-blooded Americans have now threatened to kill her, she has to have
additional bodyguards.

Patriotism seems to be falling to whoever claims it loudest, and we're left
struggling to find a definition in a clamor of reaction. This is what I'm
hearing: Patriotism opposes the lone representative of democracy who was
brave enough to vote her conscience instead of following an angry mob.
(Several others have confessed they wanted to vote the same way, but
chickened out.) Patriotism threatens free speech with death. It is
infuriated by thoughtful hesitation, constructive criticism of our leaders
and pleas for peace. It despises people of foreign birth who've spent years
learning our culture and contributing their talents to our economy. It has
specifically blamed homosexuals, feminists and the American Civil Liberties
Union. In other words, the American flag stands for intimidation,
censorship, violence, bigotry, sexism, homophobia, and shoving the
Constitution through a paper shredder? Who are we calling terrorists here?
Outsiders can destroy airplanes and buildings, but it is only we, the
people, who have the power to demolish our own ideals.

It's a fact of our culture that the loudest mouths get the most airplay, and
the loudmouths are saying now that in times of crisis it is treasonous to
question our leaders. Nonsense. That kind of thinking let fascism grow out
of the international depression of the 1930s. In critical times, our leaders
need most to be influenced by the moderating force of dissent. That is the
basis of democracy, in sickness and in health, and especially when national
choices are difficult, and bear grave consequences.

It occurs to me that my patriotic duty is to recapture my flag from the men
now waving it in the name of jingoism and censorship. This isn't easy for

The last time I looked at a flag with unambiguous pride, I was 13. Right
after that, Vietnam began teaching me lessons in ambiguity, and the lessons
have kept coming. I've learned of things my government has done to the world
that made me direly ashamed. I've been further alienated from my flag by
people who waved it at me declaring I should love it or leave it. I search
my soul and find I cannot love killing for any reason. When I look at the
flag, I see it illuminated by the rocket's red glare.

This is why the warmongers so easily gain the upper hand in the patriot
game: Our nation was established with a fight for independence, so our
iconography grew out of war. Our national anthem celebrates it; our language
of patriotism is inseparable from a battle cry. Our every military campaign
is still launched with phrases about men dying for the freedoms we hold
dear, even when this is impossible to square with reality. In the Persian
Gulf War we rushed to the aid of Kuwait, a monarchy in which women enjoyed
approximately the same rights as a 19th century American slave. The values
we fought for and won there are best understood, I think, by oil companies.
Meanwhile, a country of civilians was devastated, and remains destroyed.

Stating these realities does not violate the principles of liberty,
equality, and freedom of speech; it exercises them, and by exercise we grow
stronger. I would like to stand up for my flag and wave it over a few things
I believe in, including but not limited to the protection of dissenting
points of view. After 225 years, I vote to retire the rocket's red glare and
the bullet wound as obsolete symbols of Old Glory. We desperately need a new
iconography of patriotism. I propose we rip stripes of cloth from the
uniforms of public servants who rescued the injured and panic-stricken,
remaining at their post until it fell down on them. The red glare of candles
held in vigils everywhere as peace-loving people pray for the bereaved, and
plead for compassion and restraint. The blood donated to the Red Cross. The
stars of film and theater and music who are using their influence to raise
money for recovery. The small hands of schoolchildren collecting pennies,
toothpaste, teddy bears, anything they think might help the kids who've lost
their moms and dads.

My town, Tucson, Ariz., has become famous for a simple gesture in which some
8,000 people wearing red, white or blue T-shirts assembled themselves in the
shape of a flag on a baseball field and had their photograph taken from
above. That picture has begun to turn up everywhere, but we saw it first on
our newspaper's front page. Our family stood in silence for a minute looking
at that photo of a human flag, trying to know what to make of it. Then my
teenage daughter, who has a quick mind for numbers and a sensitive heart,
did an interesting thing. She laid her hand over a quarter of the picture,
leaving visible more or less 6,000 people, and said, "That many are dead."
We stared at what that looked like -- all those innocent souls,
multi-colored and packed into a conjoined destiny -- and shuddered at the
one simple truth behind all the noise, which is that so many beloved people
have suddenly gone from us. That is my flag, and that's what it means: We're
all just people together.

Barbara Kingsolver is the author of nine books including "The Poisonwood
Bible," (Harperflamingo, 1999).

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