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A Little Red, White and Blue Goes A Long Way 

From the depth of my considerable feeling for our fatherland I proclaim, "Enough with the red, white, and blue, already!" It's my respect for the flag and its colors that makes me rankle at their recent appearance on just about everything, from celebrities' shoulders to cigarette lighters. The implications appear to be that Meg Ryan draped in Old Glory is irrefutably an All-American Girl, and the act of firing up a glass pipe ascends to the realm of patriotic gesture, if a flag-embellished lighter is employed. When a symbol is slapped on a multitude of incongruities, its meaning becomes detached from it, or at least diluted. It functions as a signal for a certain response, but if a symbol is sprung from its context and sent floating about everywhere, its power to trigger that response is lessened, and its status is reduced to ornamentation. The merchants are inundating us with flag-adorned items because that's what they do when they luck upon an image that sells things by association, like Pikachu from Pokemon. The flag, or its colors on an object, now signal that most urgent of national messages: Buy Me.

Even when viewed as a decorative color scheme, the current glut of red, white, and blue is unsettling. It just didn't go with Christmas! The three-color combo is wedded with the summer holidays of Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day. The crisp white situates it in the summer domain, with white shoes. Red, white, and blue do-dads grafted onto Christmas decorations created a clash of both colors and seasonal indicators, as if the pastel-hued Easter Bunny were to lie down with the sepia-toned Thanksgiving Turkey. In a shop in Blowing Rock were the only decorations I saw in which the two elements were blended successfully, the result of the use of muted shades of red, blue, green, and a kind of cream. No white.

One domain in which white rules, but red and blue don't have a place, is the wedding. I recently read of the introduction by Lady Roi Bridals of a line of "flag-inspired" wedding gowns called -- of course! -- The American Girl. My first thought was that there was a time not so long ago, boys and girls, when this would have been considered hysterically campy, but during our present period of apparent cultural moratorium on sub-texts, these firecracker frocks are being peddled with a straight face.

What a prime example of both questionable taste and scrambled signifiers. The acceptable color range for wedding gowns has expanded somewhat, but bright patterns still don't have a place on any but the most free-form brides. Even if an exception is made for the sake of patriotic slaver, I question how many women will appear their loveliest with stars splotching their bosoms, and big red bands encircling their waists. Stars and stripes on clothing represent military service, and white symbolizes matrimony. Combining them will make The American Girl look like she's enlisting in the United States Armed Forces of Marriage. Will guests be expected to salute?

Our flag and its colors are being used to sell not only things, but people, companies and, most insidiously, ideas. There's Oprah on the cover of the February issue of O (having your own magazine seems to designate you perpetual Cover Girl), showing the good sense not to don a flag, thank heavens, but wearing zealous red, with the word FREEDOM blocked out in big blue letters below her gown's spangly strands. No doubt this guarantees that Miss "O" is an All-American Famous Person, along with Meg and all the other celebrities quick to suit themselves up in patriotism's palette. We're likewise supposed to assign sterling qualities to companies merely because they stick a flag in their advertising. Perhaps Enron should try converting the color scheme of that big, up-ended "E" in front of their headquarters.

Actually, the big "O" is right to trumpet freedom. The US flag represents multiple forms of it, including the crucial freedom to question authority, which our forefathers found to be intolerably lacking in a monarchy. They imagined a new fealty, one that is conscious and voluntary, rather than automatic and craven. There was to be no more compulsory kneeling before anything but God. The patriotism they conjured is a thinking person's version, which doesn't swallow the belief that the powers-that-be are intrinsically right.

Despite this template, persecutions have been committed in the name of patriotism. During the First World War, citizens deemed unpatriotic because of their anti-war sentiments were imprisoned, and even executed. Our leaders have not been innocent of violating the nation's cornerstone principle by linking dissension to disloyalty, as justification for clubbing its expression.

In a commercial for Elizabeth Dole, a grave voice intones that the Democrats have questioned Mrs. Dole's patriotism. In the present climate, it would be better to accuse her of being a man in a good wig than an unpatriotic woman. The thinking part integral to All-American patriotism is again being played down by our society, as the red-white-and-blue lights go up on unquestioning loyalty, and Uncle Sam's finger swings around to point at those who don't flagrantly exhibit it.

Beyond the gimcrack artifacts, and the people draping themselves in Old Glory as if it were a mantle of immunity, lies a worrisome spawn of the current effluence of rah-rah: the glamorization of all things military. That institution, and, sometimes, war, are necessary, but shouldn't be romantically represented. The army has clips in movie theaters that depict military service as essentially an exciting video game with extra-super graphics. Another misleadingly enticing television ad implies that joining up is a veritable exercise in individualism, with its invitation to the viewer to become an "Army of One." Perhaps high school students should be required to listen to John Prine's saga of a veteran, "Sam Stone," with its refrain of "There's a hole in daddy's arm where all the money goes" as an antidote to pitched promises of grand adventure and heroic stature.

Let's love our country, but keep the flag-embossed fingernails, and the blinders, off while we do it.*

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