Stars and Stripes turn into dollars and cents

Oct 8, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Three cheers for the red, white and blue. And … green? It depends who’s doing the cheering.
When people talk about the “spirit of America” now, they’re usually referring to a diverse people’s ability to recover from a terrible blow and band together against a common enemy. But there are arguably several different spirits of America. And one of them is, sadly, “exploit whatever’s handy in the quest to make a buck.”
Thus there are two kinds of patriotism sweeping the land: the genuine, emotional, long-dormant and presumably heartfelt kind, and the manufactured, opportunistic, scheming phony-baloney kind.
It isn’t hard to tell one from the other, really. Those commercials that have suddenly started popping up on cable for show-your-pride flag sets (act now, operators are standing by, allow six to eight weeks for delivery, sorry no C.O.D.) are not about love of country. They are about love of profit.
Network news bosses debate and come to their own decisions about whether anchors and reporters should be allowed to wear flag pins in their lapels. Wearing one seems a harmless, positive gesture, but one always must worry about where things will lead. And this little fashion trend could lead to spurious accusations (“Hey, where’s your flag pin?”) and character assassination (“You know, he refuses to wear a flag pin!”).
God Bless Americana
Of course it’s clear where the manufacturers of flag pins stand on this issue. They solemnly believe in the right of every American to buy a flag pin and make them richer. This is true whether it’s a crummy $4.95 job advertised in TV Guide or the latest diamond-encrusted superpin whipped up in the back rooms of Tiffany’s.
Commercials disguised as appeals to patriotism haven’t quite flooded the airwaves yet, but they’re trickling in. If a product is truly being sold to benefit charities involved in helping the families of police or firefighters who were lost or injured at the World Trade Center or Pentagon disasters, that is one thing.
Peddling junk created out of sheer greed is another.
But it isn’t always easy to tell the difference. What about the commemorative medallions or flag-bedecked bric-a-brac sold with the assurance that “a portion” of the proceeds goes to relief work? I always assume “a portion” to mean “the smallest possible percentage-if any.”
When one of the cast members of Aaron Sorkin’s self-righteous “West Wing” told viewers that “profits” from last week’s preachy terrorism episode will go to firefighter and police charities, I thought, “What profits?” NBC probably doesn’t make much on the first run of the show. It turns out the actor meant profits down the road-perhaps way, way down the road-when the episode goes into syndication.
Meanwhile, it’s the cheesy world of Internet spam more than the slightly less cheesy world of late-night cable commercials that has really gone gung-ho for “patriotic” paraphernalia. Imagine how it warmed my heart to learn from an e-mail message late last week that collectiblestoday.com has just opened up a new Stars & Stripes Store, and that the store is “loaded with patriotic limited editions” that make “great autumn gift ideas.”
Yes, I had been wondering what to get Aunt Betty for autumn.
The Stars & Stripes Store has ever so many tantalizing suggestions. How about the Courage Under Fire Collector Plate, a piece of $39.95 dinnerware that you are not-repeat not-supposed to use at dinner. No, this is to be propped up in a conspicuous place to show how, uh, right-thinking you are. (What better messenger than a plate to communicate love of country?) The Courage Under Fire Collector Plate “unites fully sculptural craftsmanship with dramatic plate artistry to honor America’s heroic firefighters.”
Trinkets & trash forever
It sounds as though maybe they had thousands of these things sitting around in a warehouse after having failed to unload them all following the last conspicuous instance of firefighter courage. So now in the tradition of American enterprise, they dust them off and call them contemporary commemoratives.
There’s much more to choose from: a Semper-Fi Music Box, a Liberty Lid Ornament and-I know this has nothing to do with exploiting patriotism, but it was offered on the same page, and it kinda took my breath away-a Barbie and Ken as The Munsters Doll Set. It sounds funny until you look at the price: 88 bucks.
Maybe the most sublimely absurd item, though, is designed for those who find waving the flag just isn’t enough and feel the need to wave a flag of the flag. A flag flag. Or, as it is more descriptively hawked, the Patriotic Birdhouse Porch Flower Flag, which is a banner on which has been embossed a painting of a birdhouse sitting ‘mongst flowers and trees. What makes a birdhouse patriotic? Well, if an American Eagle lived there, that would. But in this case, it’s because a flag has been painted on one side of the birdhouse roof.
This is quality merchandise to be sure-made of genuine “rot, mildew and fade-resistant … poly fabric” and yours for a mere 20 dollars. How proud your birds will be.
Patriots and profiteers
The America Shop, another online emporium, promises that a “portion of proceeds” will be “donated to The United Way of America,” which technically doesn’t even guarantee that the “portion” will go toward charities involved in this particular terrorist disaster. Anyway, the Shop invites you to “support America and America’s heroes” with decorated T-shirts of “highest Hanes quality” that say things like “Never Forget” and “God Bless America.”
On the back of each shirt is a red-white-and-blue ribbon, the kind some people are wearing on their lapels, and under it the date 9-11-01. In other words, it is a souvenir of a heartbreaking national tragedy.
There is high commerce and low commerce. When Broadway stars gathered in Times Square for a giant group portrait designed to encourage people to resume their theater-going (“Let’s Go on With the Show”), that is high commerce and tasteful and commendable.
But all that spam being shoved through the Internet e-mail slot-that’s not only low commerce, that’s low class. That’s no class. The people who perpetrate it don’t seem all that different from the looters who showed up at the site of the World Trade Center collapse. The goal is the same: to profit from the horror, hardship and unbearable loss of others.
It’s also why some of us see as much danger in too many flags as in too few. People who object to having Old Glory plastered on every window, vehicle and peanut-butter jar are accused of not loving the flag, when the fact is they may be the ones who love it most of all.