Monday, August 30, 2004


Two boys, well-scrubbed types who looked to be in the early years of high school, walked one after the other toward the exits of the Broadway T stop. Brothers, but not twins, perhaps a year or two apart. Freckled faces, tanned legs in shorts, dirty blond hair under Red Sox baseball caps. Their chests, too, were identical: Each wore an Old Navy T-shirt, blazing white with a rustic American flag etched into the center.

Patriotism’s the last refuge of a scoundrel, sure, but these two all-American cherubs weren’t scoundrels. Most wearers of the flag are not; there is simply something about Americans that drives them to it. The colors that most countries paint on themselves during World Cup finals are the standard uniform in the United States, which coincidentally tends to look down its collective nose at that periodic frenzy of mock war. (Why shouldn’t it? America stays busy with those sports invented here, baseball and basketball, and the one whose name was appropriated, football. Paying attention to soccer is merely confusing when the entire rest of the world insists on calling it a different name.)

Jenna Weissman Joselit’s “A Perfect Fit: Clothes, Character, and the Promise of America” (Owl, 2001) is silent on this quirk, because the book stretches from the 1890s to the 1930s, but the silence is eloquent: It underlines that the national obsession with red, white and blue is new, although the roots of this flag drag are old. Joselit notes that a fabric buyer writing in a 1920s Saturday Evening Post ...

[S]ingled out the “East European element of our population” for its bravery and fashion forwardness. With their “racial love” of colors, “these people” deserved to be credited with having whetted the nation’s thirst for color, he declared, offering a strikingly essentialist perspective on the relationship between race and the hues of the rainbow. His theory went something like this: When they first arrived in the New World, Jewish immigrants dressed like everyone else. Eager to be “like Americans who had been here for generations,” they practiced restraint even though they found the “conventional blacks, grays and other dark shades of our male attire inherited from the Puritans dull and uninteresting.” But no sooner did they become sure of themselves as Americans then they “reverted to their untrammeled love of colors.” ... Right or wrong, the fabric buyer’s theory of history underscored one of color’s most important properties: its relationship to freedom.

The wearing of red, white and blue exploded after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, a persistence-of-vision effect like Fourth of July fireworks or something seen through eyes shut very tightly. The illumination by flag displays not only unity against an enemy, but a brandishing of brightness against the oppressive blackness and austerity of the robes, and edicts, of our enemies. The fervored nationalism carries a sweaty sheen of defensiveness to which America is blind, just as the Taliban, Wahhabists and Islamists are blind to their own surrender into blackness. The difference, if any, lies not in the wearing, but in the creation, meaning the manufacture and selling of red, white and blue this, that and the other thing. Marketing patriotism is taking advantage of an addiction, which is certainly the behavior of a scoundrel.

America’s flaunting of its colors is probably unique on Earth, at least at this time, and it comes of being stuck in a loop of sensory overload; in politics as in fashion, the first dose is free, but no one warns that the stuff is addictive, and once the flaunting has begun, there can only be more patriotism and more. Less patriotism is, in practice, unpatriotic. And no one wants to be that, especially if they’re not -- especially if the problem is easily and even subconsciously solved by simply buying a T-shirt. Or pants. Or a headband. Or a beach towel. Or anything else with the right colors and maybe a bunch of stars.

Keep an eye out for bargains at your local grocery store for Edy’s America’s Vanilla ice cream, which is intended to stop selling tomorrow. This is the red, white and blue treat that suggests you “Show your true colors! Then enjoy eating them!”

This Limited Edition flavor is your favorite creamy vanilla ice cream striped in red, white and blue. So salute the great taste of America’s Vanilla. A perfect new reason to celebrate America!

Never mind that red, white and blue are also the colors of a little less than three dozen other flags on Earth, including such nations as Cuba and North Korea as well as friendlies including the Czech Republic, Australia, Laos, the Netherlands, Tokelau and the territories of Wallis and Futuna. (So Edy’s can theoretically go on to sell “A perfect new reason to celebrate America!” as “A perfect new reason to celebrate France!” and Slovenia! and Liberia!)

What’s funniest, and saddest, about this ice cream is that under the gaudiness -- Red No. 40 and Blue Nos. 1 and 2 -- it’s just vanilla. Underneath the spectacle is the dullest of flavors.

America, however, just eats this stuff up.

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