He chose neither the nation nor the time

Boy in sailor uniform with flag-draped portrait of President McKinley (Courtesy of the Library of Congress).
He was born into the United States and, being but a boy, had little choice when his mother chose to dress him in a sailor uniform, cart him off to a photographer’s, and have him pose with a sword before a large flag-draped portrait of William McKinley (who must have been his mother’s political hero).

The scrawl at the bottom says 1896, so McKinley was not yet the lamented late president but the bright star of the Republican Party, perhaps just newly elected to the White House.

Her son’s doughty if startled expression must have pleased her greatly.  Though cast into an exceedingly strange role, yet he was intent on minding authority.  Politics was all around him, though he understood it but dimly.  He had chosen neither the nation nor the time.

Image: from this source.

Mending the Flag

Fort McHenry flag (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
EVERY FOURTH OF JULY, my head is filled with an unruly melange of memories: bits and pieces of our history, recalling the brilliant beings who charted a treacherous course away from kingly rule toward liberty, and the many subsequent Independence Day celebrations when orations, rather than fireworks and explosions, were the order of the day.

I don’t run with the flag-waving set.  On the contrary, I sometimes wonder whether “liberal patriotism” is an oxymoron.  On the Fourth, as the day passes more or less wordlessly, I wonder about the emotions and reservations that impede an intellectual patriotism.  Can the impediments to a matter-of-fact, 21st-century dedication to ‘the Union’ ever be redeemed?

Ministering to the sources of impaired patriotism is what I’ve nicknamed “mending the flag.”  I used to fantasize about hosting a ‘Mend the Flag’ party, where each guest would be invited to bring and share a poem, song, or personal statement expressive of his or her true feelings about the country.  I imagine offerings would run the gamut from stark to comic, from shame to outrage, from sorrow to out-and-out disavowal.   Sadly, many Americans live in a country they’re reluctant to own, disillusioned with the federal government, betrayed by its class of supposed statesmen and -women.

Why do such feelings of damaged patriotism matter?  They matter because individual liberties are dependent on the health of the collective.  The freedom and autonomy that Americans prize depends on preserving and bettering the national order.  When Americans turn away from politics in despair or disgust, they increase the odds that government will become ever more corrupt, vulnerable, misguided, and over-weaning.  As the sage once said, “All that’s necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”  When it comes to republican government, that’s certainly true.  On the other hand, the triumph this week of the gay rights cause shows what a minority, when fully mobilized and determined, can do.

Cynicism notwithstanding, disaffected Americans cannot afford to be anything but engaged.  With what political energy they have left, they must do what they can to mend the flag.

Image: The first photograph ever taken of the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’
that flew over Fort McHenry and inspired Francis Scott Key to write our national anthem.
The image dates from 1873, when naval officer and writer George Henry Preble
photographed the old flag, then on display at the Boston Navy Yard. 

A serious problem for patriots

Flag flying above House of Representatives, Jan 1917 (Courtesy Library of Congress)
Men holding a wind-ripped flag taken down from atop the US House of Representatives.
Photograph by Harris & Ewing, January 16, 1917.

Image from this source.

Betsy Ross of the Capitol

A woman mends the American flag in a back room of the Capitol
“Washington, D.C.  Mrs. Georgeieanna Higgins.  Official title is Seamstress to the United States Senate, but for years has been called the ‘Betsy Ross of the Capitol.’  She is responsible for keeping the flag that flies over the Senate wing of the Capitol in proper flapping order.  This is no mean job since the flag flies night and day when the Senate is in session, which means a terrific beating from the elements, an average of 12 Flags is used each session”  (March 2, 1937)


Image: from this source.

Another Illinois politico goes down

Cameramen waiting for Hastert, © 2015 Susan Barsy

June 9.  The cameramen shooting the breeze near the entry to the Dirksen Federal Courthouse meant that something big was happening.  It turned out to be the arraignment of former House Speaker Dennis Hastert. Continue reading

All Ready for the Six-Day Grind

Showing the interior of the Garden just before the race was set to begin.
December 6, 1908.  It’s Sunday night, and everyone inside the Garden is in a state of suspense, waiting for the six-day race to begin.  Continue reading


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