WASHINGTON — This will, for obvious reasons, be the biggest Fourth of July ever. People who tally such things predict record numbers of flag displays, cookouts and youthful fingers blown off by cherry bombs. Expressions of gung-ho patriotic sentimentality are selling briskly, from Royal Doulton firefighter figurines to Lynne Cheney’s “America: A Patriotic Primer” (No. 11 on the bestsellers’ list). Antenna flags, grown tattered since September, will likely be replaced, and most cities are expecting larger than usual attendance at their Independence Day parades.
Even artists, those left-leaning, anti-authoritarian, alternative-lifestyle rebels of the ’90s, are in on the act. Todd Scott marked Flag Day (June 14 for you traitors who missed it) by unveiling his 17-by-32-meter, duct-tape American flag in Manhattan’s Union Square. “Duct tape is an incredibly versatile and fun product,” Scott says in his press release. “You are only limited by your imagination, and the U.S. flag is just one of many amazing things you can create with it.”
This is, of course, the problem. Not duct tape, but the spine-shudderingly tasteless style of American patriotism in both its unofficial and official forms. The tackification of America culminated (one hopes) with the simultaneous issuance of 9-11 commemorative coins and the announcement of the new Department of Homeland Security.
The proposed reshuffling of government agencies seems smart, but the name is a disaster. The world’s richest and most powerful nation, an empire with troops dispatched to 70 countries, devoted to intimidating evil-doers, cave-dwellers and left-leaning pundits, needs to attach an ominous Orwellian name to its enforcer of state-sanctioned terror — something like Ministry of Internal Security, say, or Department of Domestic Suppression. Imagery is everything if you want to control minds.
The Soviets were good at totalitarian branding: The KGB, actually the First Chief Directorate, only added to the fear the idea of the agency inspired.
If you can’t come up with an evil-sounding name, an acronym will do. Under the shah, Iran’s brutal intelligence service, the Sazman-e Ittilaat va Amniat-e Keshvar, was known by its Maxwell Smartian abbreviation SAVAK. Similarly, Myanmar’s military junta, the State Law and Order Restoration Council, scored extra oppression points by calling itself SLORC.
On the other hand, the wimpy “Department of Homeland Security” becomes even more cuddly-wuddly when reduced to DHS, which has already been claimed by state Departments of Human Services. “Homeland” does echo the Nazi “fatherland” and Soviet “motherland” but somehow lacks the despotic panache. And it violates the hard-consonant rule: Exhibit A being Germany’s postwar intelligence service, the Bundesnachrichtendienst/Verfassungsschutz. Said out loud, it sounds like Panzer tanks crushing human skulls. In German, even vowels are consonants.
The United States may be, as Al Gore asserted a few months before being robbed of the presidency, “the best country ever created.” But we’ve got an embarrassing amount of work to do in the grandeur department before we’ll get the respect we deserve.
It hurts to admit it, but the American flag is ugly as sin. Designer Betsy Ross’ work was most recently revised by Robert Heft, a high school sophomore from Lancaster, Ohio, who came up with the current 50-star layout for a class assignment in 1958, when Alaskan and Hawaiian statehood were being considered. Rather than following up the old six-by-eight row symmetry of the old 48-star version by shifting to five-by-10, Heft resorted to alternating the number of stars per row. His teacher, Stanley Pratt, gave him a B-minus. Pratt was right. Heft’s 64-element design is too busy, its upper-left blue field is absurdly out of balance and it’s hard to distinguish from far away. Maybe some flag-burners aren’t making political statements-they just hate bad graphics.
When it comes to flag design, minimalism rules. France, Ireland and Italy each use three simple colors. Bangladesh, an impoverished nation sinking below sea level due to global warming, nonetheless hoists a banner that kicks our flag’s butt — a big red dot surrounded by forest green. If flamboyance appeals, go radical: Who can forget Imperial Japan’s rising sun motif? Colors are important too. Red, white and blue are overused, but no country’s flag uses purple.
If we’re going to be living with flags covering our lawns, cars, barns and T-shirts, it’s time to consider a cool redesign. Surely some out-of-work art director could come up with something more befitting our stature as rich, vengeful heirs to the British Empire.
While we’re retrofitting our national iconography, let’s retire our long-obsolete national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Does anyone even make it as far as “O’er the ramparts we watched” anymore? Unfortunately, other longtime runner-ups like “America the Beautiful” and “This Land is My Land” aren’t much better.
If Bush truly wants to leave a lasting legacy, he ought to forget about dispatching troops to defend Unocal’s Afghan pipeline and devote himself to getting our greatest songwriters to compose lyrics worthy of “Arise, ye who refuse to be slaves!” (China), “Conquer or die” (Guatemala) and “Wake up from your deadly slumber” (Romania).
We’re not doing much better in the paper arts. Isn’t it pathetic that Afghanistan has better-looking paper money than us? The closest thing we have to a national ID, our Social Security cards, aren’t even laminated. Our postage stamps look like they were issued by Liberia. “E pluribus unum” is boring beyond belief. That pyramid-eye thingie on the dollar bill is weird. And whoever designed the yellow-metal (they dare call it “gold”) dollar coin has some serious explaining to do.
As individuals we judge other people by how they dress and arrange their hair. As a nation, we look like bums. No wonder the terrorists consider us easy marks.
Now is the time for all Americans to stand up and fight for the establishment of a Cabinet-level Department of National Aesthetics. The DNA will coordinate and redesign our national branding for the new millennium. Its mission will be to revive classic aesthetic elements from the past. Its mandate to establish elegance as a national standard will take us into a more attractive future; wouldn’t it be easier to be proud of our armed forces if their uniforms were designed by Prada and they drove Ferrari armored personnel carriers? Oh, and we need a logo.
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