too much typing—since 2003


the twilight's last gleaming

You think your country needs you, but you know it never will - Elvis Costello

A few months ago, at the height of the patriotic frenzy inspired by the then-new war in Iraq, I noticed a selection of flags at a locally owned department store. The flags were anchoring a display of red-white-and-blue items consumers could buy to reassure their neighbors that they weren't one of those dangerous, scary, un-American types. Looking a bit more closely at the flags, I noticed they were, in fact, manufactured in South Korea. I don't suppose I need to say much about the appalling irony of that fact alone - but its implications disturbed me even more.

Did the folks buying those flags realize that they were furthering the ongoing forced exodus of labor to offshore locations? Did their unemployed neighbor - the one who used to work at a factory whose owners decided that it would be cheaper to subcontract to have its products made elsewhere, by workers being paid pennies a day - realize where that flag came from? Did the workers who made the flag - most likely, either very young girls desperately trying to support their families in ways that didn't involve prostitution, or prematurely aged women equally desperate but lacking even that other, unpleasant option - think about what it's supposed to represent, and the gap between that ideal and the reality: that the government for which that flag stands was complicit in their immiseration, by encouraging the brutal bottom-line policies that further corporations' race to find the cheapest, most desperate workers? What must they think of the Americans mounting those flags on their oversized, overpriced SUVs? And the brothers, husbands, and sons of those workers - who aren't hired in the sweatshops because in a masculinist culture they're not as docile, not as physically intimidated, and not as useful in the occasional exercise of floor-managerial droit de seigneur - how much shame, degradation, and abuse can they take before they're driven by hatred and crushed pride into the welcoming arms of terror? And for us consumers: how much cheaper were these flags as a result of these cost-saving exportations of labor? Or - far more likely - how much of those savings instead further fattened executive compensation packages, including those derived from the value of shares whose prices shoot upwards with every American worker pink-slipped?

It's doubtful most purchasers of those flags gave any of this a moment's thought. It's sadly doubtful that if they did, they'd care. Which is another layer of irony, since, supposedly, they're buying the flags in the first place to show that they care about and support this nation. But what kind of support is it to buy a product whose circumstances of manufacture are directly implicated in probably the main reason American wages are so low, American workers so vulnerable in their jobs, and American unemployed so numerous? They are, in essence, tromping over to that unemployed neighbor's house, breaking in, stealing whatever they can find, and stuffing it in the pockets of his former employer's CEO to help him buy another yacht.

But again: no one thinks any of that. What's important is the symbol, the gesture, the words written in (someone else's) blood above the door, telling those angels in the Great Father Ashcroft's employ to pass over this house with their high-resolution spyplanes, their PATRIOTically authorized phone taps, their electronic vision that knows the thoughts written in our souls - or at least in our e-mails. So long as we wave the flag, wear the right clothes, have a nice tan, shine the right shoes, and vote for the party whose votes are actually counted, we're okay. The reality? Lighten up - don't be such a drag.

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