4 July 08
The opening scene of Schindler’s List features the main character getting ready to go out in the evening. Combed hair, pressed shirt, tie, handkerchief. The final touch? The Nazi lapel pin. This will function for him as a pass-card; it’s membership in the club of the powerful and terrifying. Industrialist Oskar Schindler is mostly interested in making money, and he makes a fortune thanks to the Nazis and their war. The lapel pin gets him places. Really nasty places, and his story of redemption is the story of a struggle with his conscience, of doing the right thing because it’s the right thing, and because you can: it’s a choice.
I grew up in Franco’s Spain near the northern Madrid Guardia Civil headquarters. We’d see them wandering, always in tricornered pairs, always with tommy guns; but when they drilled at the Quartel, they’d pass under the Spanish flag (in those days it said “Una, Grande, Libre” (one, great, free) unlike the confederate version so in evidence during the recent Eurocopa) and kiss it. Kiss the flag. Take it in their right hands and press their lips to it. The motto of the Guardia Civil was “Todo por la patria” — everything for the motherland. Everything: extreme suppression of dissent, torture, intimidation, wiretapping. Everything. No freedom of speech, no freedom of the press, no freedom to assemble, nada. Behave and we won’t hurt you. Everything. Por la patria.
My country, right or wrong, in other words.
One of the most striking things about the Declaration of Independence — and the U.S. Constitution, which I’ve only recently read for the first time — is how they both assume that citizens not only want to be, but are, in fact, grownups. They reject the model of the powerful parent, either monarch or state, and instead require that the government serve at the pleasure of the people.
Of course this requires that the “people” take their civic responsibilities seriously; that they engage; that they inform themselves; that they vote. It is not a model of blind obedience. It’s hard work, citizenship. It involves wrestling with the angel of democracy, as Susan Griffin says in her new book. Not for kids. Not for fearful adults or stupefied zombie-like drones (see Wall-E for an example of how frightening that could really be). Grownups.
Ever since 9/11 the flag-fetish has become a cudgel. Ever since I’ve been alive I’ve been aware that Americans hang flags more, much more, than Europeans; even in Fascist Spain, it was only the state and associated enforcers who engaged in it. Here, lots of people hang flags. It’s called “patriotism.”
So now they’re going after Obama for not wearing a flag lapel pin. The omission is somehow his entry into the club of world terrorism, a sign that he secretly hates America and wants to blow it up. He’s not “patriotic” enough.
It remains to be seen whether the damage inflicted on the citizenry by these crazed fearmongers will prevail in November.
I really hope not, because what was embodied in the Declaration of Independence — and later in the Constitution — is nothing less than faith in the ability of reasonable people to arrange their lives, reasonably. How civilized. And, on this Fourth of July, what a great gift to the world.