An Inclusive Litany


Alternative-art maven Neva Chonin in the San Francisco Chronicle, September 25, 2001
Two weeks after the bombings in New York and Washington, DC, the projected casualty figures keep rising. Not all the victims are human beings: As grief passes and xenophobia increases, the American flag is covering—literally, in some cases—other symbols of this country's diverse cultural geography.

Old Glory wallpapers Mission District nightclubs, North Beach sex stores and Haight Street head shops. It decorates "alternative" clothing outlets; it hangs in the windows of tattooing and piercing parlors. You know there's been a radical shift when even the guy doing tongue piercings is humming "God Bless America" and alterna-chicks are getting flag tattoos to match their red, white and blue hair.

This altered physical landscape reflects the sociopolitical one: Where once there were many national narratives, these days there is only one. It begins with "God" and ends with "America."

San Francisco art critic Glen Helfand tells me that under the freeways near his South of Market office, "where Andre the Giant and faux political posters used to be," he now sees only "row on row of wheat-pasted American flags" with a heavily punctuated "Indivisible!!!" emblazoned across the bottom.

"It's an immediate sea change," he says. "Someone is appropriating this outlaw space and turning it into a patriotic space. Where once there was ambivalence, there's now a monolithic quality, and there's no resistance to the symbolism. What does it mean to put up the flag? What are people trying to say?"

For many, the flag began as a gesture of solidarity with the bombing victims and a visual expression of national mourning, defiance and pride. This is changing, and the flag has increasingly come to reflect a more chauvinistic "Go, Team!" sentiment. It's as if Sept. 11 transformed our country into a giant sports stadium where the War Against Terrorism is trying for a first down....

What's needed is a new symbol for those who want to express both national diversity and national solidarity, but not national chauvinism. Our alternative arts culture could provide one, if it can dig itself out of the Sept. 11 ashes and find its voice again.

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