The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month

Some thoughts on ceremony and politics.

Veterans’ Day is one of my least favorite holidays, along with Memorial Day and President’s Day. Each is the ghost of a departed custom. None, under its revised name, celebrates anything in particular.

The Armistice (Waffenstillstand in the more sonorous German) that ended the hideous slaughter of the Great War was worth commemorating, just as decorating the graves of those who died to save the Union was a practice worth enshringing in Decoration Day. And the births of Washington and Lincoln, two of the most fortunate events ever to happen to suffering humanity, were worth celebrating each February.

But what stirring image is called up by Veterans’ Day? An American Legion convention? A hospital? How many Americans can say just what it is the Memorial Day memorializes? And the notion of a holiday dedicated to, among others, James Buchanan, Warren Harding, and Richard Nixon (to name no more recent examples) is enough to make my gorge rise.

We live in a ceremony-poor culture. And I’m afraid my fellow Seculars are in part to blame. Denominational religion is, in many ways, more trouble than it’s worth. But it seems to me that Confucius was right about the centrality of ritual in binding a community together.

I suspect that many Seculars don’t really object to the theatricality of ritual as much as they do to the affirmations it involves. Joining in a ritual seems to be the opposite of the “thinking for oneself” so beloved of the half-baked Emersonians who still write our school curricula.

I’m sorry that the Pledge to the Flag is such a lousy liturgy and has such a piss-poor bit of ritual built around it, and even sorrier that the Bible-thumpers decided to pollute that simple common patriotic act with a touch of forced worship. But the idea of some sort of daily patriotic act by schoolchildren, which many of my friends find slightly disgusting, seems to me a sound one.

And the flag itself, which doesn’t appeal to me at all as a piece of graphic design or heraldry, and which represents a nation whose flaws I could catalogue as well as anyone else, is still our Flag.

Think about it: when you pass a car on the highway and see an American flag bumper sticker, what do you assume about the political views of the driver? Right. So do I. And so do all those voters whose behavior you simply can’t understand. At some level, many of them were voting for the party that wasn’t made uncomfortable by the sight of an American flag bumper sticker.

The habit on the anti-Vietnam War left of dishonoring our flag and honoring that of our enemies wasn’t really very widespread. But it wasn’t entirely made up, either. And its result was to allow the right to seize the flag as a partisan symbol, giving its candidates an advantage they still enjoy. If we want to start winning elections, the first thing to do is to recapture the flag for our side.

[After the Oklahoma City bombing, I proposed to the couple of contacts I had within the Clinton White House that the President should ask all Americans to fly flags and wear flag lapel pins as an anti-militia statement. But the idea went nowhere.]

So here’s my idea, which I offer to any seeker of the Democratic nomination for 2008 who wants to take it: ask your supporters NOT to put your bumper sticker on their cars without a separate American flag bumper sticker, or to wear your campaign button without an American flag lapel pin. Yes, that will make some of your potential supporters uncomfortable. But that’s exactly the problem we’re trying to solve.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

2 thoughts on “The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month”

  1. Recapture the Flag

    Mark A.R. Kleiman has a modest proposal for Democrats that makes sense: Think about it: when you pass a car on the highway and see an American flag bumper sticker, what do you assume about the political views of the…

  2. MISSING THE POINT

    Mark Kleiman thinks that the Democrats need to take back the flag († Chris Lawrence): Think about it: when you pass a car on the highway and see an American flag bumper sticker, what do you assume about the political…

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