Monday, July 3, 2006

Monday with McKenna: "De-Sacred-ing" the Flag

Terry McKenna returns to DR today, with both the artwork (click the graphic) and some insights on who and what really "desecrates" the flag.

I put that word in quotes to reveal exactly how far we are from the separation of church and state. I, personally, am of a mind that it should be our society's goal to "de-sacred" the flag and the nation it represents. I have written a little more on this point at my Daily Kos diary.

Here's another principle that can help guide your reaction to the news: the neocon hegemony will make the most violent stir over news that is really not worth a breath of bluster. As Frank Rich pointed out yesterday:

But, unfortunately for us, terrorists are not so stupid: it's been reported as far back as 2003 (in The Washington Post) and as recently as this month (in Ron Suskind's must-read best seller, "The One Percent Doctrine") that our enemies long ago took Mr. Bush at his word and abandoned banks for couriers, money brokers, front companies and suitcases stuffed with cash and gold. Tom Brokaw summarized the consensus of terrorism experts last week when he told Chris Matthews of MSNBC: "I don't know anyone who believes that the terrorist network said, 'Oh my God, they're tracing our financial transactions? What a surprise.' Of course, they knew that they were doing that."

But perhaps it is only natural (for them, anyway) that the Bushies expect the same incompetence of the terrorists as has defined this administration. This is, of course, no excuse for them; but it is an explanation. And now, here's some real perspective from a man who knows his American history better than anybody I am acquainted with. Mr. McKenna, the blog is yours.

It’s the Fourth of July, the Glorious Fourth in the parlance of an earlier age. Actually, it is July 3rd - my small town will have its fireworks tonight. The bigger towns are able to host their fireworks on the fourth itself (the fees of the fireworks companies are much larger for July 4 – so only the larger cities can afford the much larger fees). For those who enjoy the glow of patriotism, this is your holiday.

Patriotism and the American flag have been in the news this week – and also in this blog. Brian’s postings have been excellent. In the mainstream media, The NEW YORKER ran a MUST READ commentary on flag desecration; there is also a piece by Jane Mayer about the Bush Administration’s attempts to sully our flag and our constitution. Incidentally, I'd encourage you to purchase the magazine. We need to show support for the few remaining outlets of honest journalism – the New Yorker and the New York Times being among the staunch few.

The neocon thesis is that desecration comes when it is done to the symbol that stands behind the mundane pieces of cloth that are individual flags. Thus desecration occurs when it affects the symbol itself. The flag burning amendment (which failed to pass the senate by one vote), was just such an insult to what America stands for.

July 3rd is also a big day in American military history. On this day in 1863, the Union won two great battles. In Pennsylvania, General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was defeated by the Army of the Potomac. In Mississippi, the Union Army of the Tennessee defeated a Confederate army that was garrisoned in Vicksburg. I have been to both battlefields. If you have never walked a battlefield, the experience is both eerie and moving. If you read the markers (and there are usually many) you will likely find yourself caught up in a long past drama. Although both sides in the Civil War fought with valor, I am most moved by accounts of the Union troops. Gettysburg is an especially dramatic site. When you visit (and you should) please make the hike up to Little Round Top – and please read about the battle before you go. If you do, you’ll understand why the story of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s 20th Maine has remained an inspiration to those who hope for the best in man.

In fact, for many of us (including my fellow blogger), we wish that the Civil War had never happened. We wish instead that Abraham Lincoln had waved the Southern states a pleasant goodbye in 1861 and let them wallow in their feudal plutocracy, while we gained the benefits of industrialization. Nonetheless, the Civil War did occur, and deserves study if only for the lessons we can learn. At the beginning of the conflict, both sides attempted to conduct themselves with honor. So, as late as the Summer of 1863, prisoners were routinely “paroled” – that is, they were sent home with a promise not to fight again. Some kept to their promise. Others did not. Many of the paroled Vicksburg garrison returned later in the Fall to fight against the Union army at Chattanooga. The system of paroles was established because neither side had the technology to easily transport and hold prisoners (nor to house, feed and keep them clean). For men of honor, it was better to risk having a few men return to fight again, than to treat them poorly, or even worse, to resort to battlefield execution.

When blacks joined the fight, the system of mutual paroles broke down. The Southern Army refused to parole surrendering black soldiers (it typically slaughtered them). As a result, the Union Army refused to extend paroles to Confederates. Thus at the end of the war, both sides housed thousands of captives in concentration camp conditions.

The irony in this story is that before the war, Southern culture was steeped in a code of chivalry and honor. Northern culture was considered more pedestrian. But it was the South that could not extend military courtesy and honor to black men. The North, to the extent that it defended the honor of its black soldiers, could and did.

In our War on Terrorism, we have been presented with a surprisingly similar challenge. We see our opponents as savages; thus it is easy to dehumanize those we have captured. But the burden for our society is to treat these men not as they deserve to be treated (in some cases, they may very well be the worst of the worst) – but as we would hope to be treated were the tables turned. This is the message delivered by international law and by US law. And if we want to turn to a higher authority we can turn to Hebrew and Christian scripture: Leviticus 19:18: Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD. Matthew 7: 12: So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

The current administration presents itself as defending America’s traditional values. Thus our behavior to our opponents at Abu Ghraib or at Guantanamo is even more atrocious than if it came at the hands of pragmatists like Richard Nixon or Gerald Ford – and constitutes the gravest dishonor to our national symbol.

—T. McKenna

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