Let’s not wave the flag in the whole world’s face

I fully understand Norman Mailer’s pique with his fellow Americans — especially since the Winter Olympics opened in Salt Lake City. Mailer, in a series of interviews that ran in British newspapers earlier this month,

I fully understand Norman Mailer’s pique with his fellow Americans — especially since the Winter Olympics opened in Salt Lake City.

Mailer, in a series of interviews that ran in British newspapers earlier this month, expressed his exasperation with what’s passing for patriotism in post-Sept. 11 America.

“America has an almost obscene infatuation with itself,” he told The Daily Telegraph. “Has there ever been a big, powerful country that is as patriotic as America? And patriotic in the tinniest way, with so much flag-waving? You’d really think we were some poor little republic and that if one person lost his religion for one hour, the whole thing would crumble. America is the real religion in this country.”

We do appear to be going overboard. I do believe that some people in places like Long Island are trying to outdo their neighbors for dramatic displays of the flag. And others, especially immigrants from those parts of the world forever etched in our psyches as bastions of terrorism, are feeling not-so-subtle pressure to demonstrate their allegiance to the United States by mounting flags, too.

During the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics, it really struck me that the “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” rah-rahing had hit a new and uncomfortable level. After Police Officer Daniel Rodriguez’s now familiar and almost de rigueur rendition of “God Bless America,” pop singer R. Kelly sang about Americans being “the greatest.” That was very, well, impolite to the athletes, fans and dignitaries from around the world — not to mention the billions watching on television across the globe — kind of like inviting guests over for dinner and spending the entire time bragging about yourself.

The tussle over the display of the tattered flag from Ground Zero bordered on tastelessness, too. For a while, it was touch and go, with a sizable contingent of super-patriots demanding that the American athletes march in with the wounded banner as a symbol of American defiance and resilience.

Fortunately, the matter was resolved when the International Olympic Committee permitted an honor guard of police, firefighters and U.S. Olympians to solemnly carry the flag into the stadium during what turned out to be a moving ceremony that was, in the end, bigger than America. After all, the world was wounded Sept. 11. Indeed, other parts of the world were probably saying to themselves that day that the United States was entering the horrid world of war and terrorism that they’d long been a part of.

Television coverage of the Olympics seems to focus more on American athletes whether they finish in the running or not than it does on winning athletes from other countries. Part of this is because, as Kelly Clark, the first American gold medalist in these games, said after her winning snowboard ride, “We’ve had a tough few months here,” alluding to Sept. 11 and its aftermath. “It’s great to give people something to cheer about.”

One of her teammates was even more specific: “I’m stoked for the U.S.A.,” Shannon Dunn said.

Fundamentally, however, this is American boosterism in overdrive. I’m less interested in tallies that emphasize which nation is ahead in the medals count. I’m much more interested in individual accomplishment nationality be damned!

On some college campuses, there is a kind of counter-patriotism underway, with students protesting the war effort in Afghanistan and the possible abuse of the rights of Taliban and Al Qaeda soldiers taken into custody by the U.S. Some super-patriots criticize their dissent as dishonorable.

But again, as Mailer told The Guardian: “My feeling is that you’re patriotic about America if you’re obsessed with America because it’s a democracy and its obligation is to improve all the time, not to stop and take bows and smell its armpits and say, ‘Ambrosia!'”

Good on you, Norm!

E.R. Shipp is a columnist for the New York Daily News. She won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1996. Readers may write to her at the New York Daily News, 450 West 33rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10001; e-mail: eshipp2002@hotmail.com.
(c) 2002, New York Daily News
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune

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