Flag of Freedom, Union of Light and Law

“Shoot if you must this old gray head, but spare your country’s flag,” she said.


Given how important flags were to the Capitol Hill insurrectionists last week, here’s John Greenleaf’s Whittier’s poem about how a true patriot wields a flag. I remember the poem vividly from my childhood.

Among the worst things recorded during the Capitol invasion is a man with an American flag beating a Capitol police officer with the pole to which it is attached. Another video clip shows Trump rioters tearing down an American flag to replace it with a Trump flag.

We also see see rioters carrying Confederate flags into the Capitol, the first time that the symbol of secession has entered those hallowed halls. And let’s not forget that, over the summer, the Trump campaign actually replaced an American flag with a Blues Lives Matter flag at a Wisconsin rally.

There’s also the tragic-comic story of the rioter who, after entering the Capitol carrying the Gadsden “Don’t Tread on Me” flag of 1775, died when she was trampled during the melee.

In Whittier’s poem, which my grandson and I read on Monday, 90-year-old Barbara Frietchie witnesses her Frederick, Maryland neighbors pulling down their American flags as General Stonewall Jackson and his “famished rebel horde” approaches the city. As Whittier recounts,

Forty flags with their silver stars,
Forty flags with their crimson bars,

Flapped in the morning wind: the sun
Of noon looked down, and saw not one.

 In Friday’s civics poetry lesson, Alban and I learned from Ralph Waldo Emerson that a nation is strong when it has “brave men who work while others sleep,/ Who dare while others fly.” Frietchie proves to be one of these brave men:

Bravest of all in Frederick town,
She took up the flag the men hauled down;

In her attic window the staff she set,
To show that one heart was loyal yet.

Then, after Jackson orders the men to fire upon the flag,

Quick, as it fell, from the broken staff
Dame Barbara snatched the silken scarf;

She leaned far out on the window-sill,
And shook it forth with a royal will.

“Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,
But spare your country’s flag,” she said.

Unlike today’s rebels, the Confederate general shows a glimmer of remorse and accords his opponent some respect:

A shade of sadness, a blush of shame,
Over the face of the leader came;

The nobler nature within him stirred
To life at that woman’s deed and word:

“Who touches a hair of yon gray head
Dies like a dog! March on!” he said.

As a result, the star-spangled banner continues to wave:

All day long that free flag tost
Over the heads of the rebel host.

Ever its torn folds rose and fell
On the loyal winds that loved it well;

And through the hill-gaps sunset light
Shone over it with a warm good-night.

Let us remember this moment, the poet tells us:

Barbara Frietchie’s work is o’er,
And the Rebel rides on his raids no more.

Honor to her! and let a tear
Fall, for her sake, on Stonewall’s bier.

Over Barbara Frietchie’s grave
Flag of Freedom and Union, wave!

Peace and order and beauty draw
Round thy symbol of light and law;

And ever the stars above look down
On thy stars below in Frederick town!

We could only wish that the GOP would show the same kind of respect for their Democratic foes as Jackson does. And experience a momentary blush of shame for trying to steal the election.

While sharing these poems with Alban, I thought back to my own citizenship education. In addition to reading and sometimes memorizing poems like this, each morning we pledged allegiance to the flag. I don’t understand why some liberals object to the pledge given that it ends with the resounding declaration “with liberty and justice for all.” That powerful vision, reaffirming the words of The Declaration of Independence, are an integral part of what makes us a nation.

To be sure, we fall short of that vision all the time, but that’s not the flag’s fault. The pledge makes clear that the flag “stands” for our republic, which is “one nation, under God, indivisible.” We can be disappointed by how the republic falls short but not by the ideal itself.

As for “God,” which some people object to, think of it as the transcendent non-material spirit that guides us. Unless you are Hobbesian materialist who sees all relations defined by self-interest or a Foucauldian who reduces everything to power struggle, your idealism will have a spiritual component.

Flag of freedom and union, symbol of light and law, long may you wave. Those who use you for base purposes are the true desecrators.

Further thought: While we honor people who stands up to the forces of sedition, let’s recall Eugene Goodman, the black Capitol cop who lured rioters away from the Senate chambers while it still held members of Congress. By making himself a decoy, he may well have saved people from being held hostage or even killed.

According to the Washington Post, a colleague observed that Goodman “was diverting people from getting on the Senate floor and getting hostages. It was the smartest thing that he could have ever done. I don’t know that many people who can think on their feet like that. . . . His quick thinking enabled those Senators to get to safety.” One tactic he employed was prodding the lead rioter with his baton at just the moment when the mob could have turned right and discovered the Senate floor. Instead they chased him up the stairs, where he had reinforcements waiting.

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Use Poetry to Teach American Civics

Willard, Spirit of ’76


Since last March, I’ve been FaceTime tutoring my Washington, D.C. grandson in poetry. Alban enjoyed the sessions so much that we continued them through the summer and haven’t stopped. Following last week’s horrific Capitol insurrection, I decided to focus on poetry as civics lesson.

Not that this eight-year-old is all that aware of what is going on. His parents, worried about frightening him, are calling the insurrectionists “protestors” rather than what they really are. They haven’t told him about the violence or the deaths.

Nevertheless, I figured it was important to emphasize certain national core values. I chose Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus,” Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “A Nation’s Strength,” and Lanston Hughes’s “I Too Sing America.”

I remember a music teacher from my elementary school days teaching us a musical version of “New Colossus.” The lines found on the Statue of Liberty made an impression on me, and they seemed to resonate with Alban as well. We talked about how America is an immigrant nation and how Alban’s mother, adopted when a South Korean baby, was part of that history.

To set the stage of Lazarus’s poem, I told Alban about the Colossus of Rhodes and we talked about how the Statue of Liberty, looking over Alban’s Manhattan birth place, was our own great statue. We discussed the hopes that America would be a beacon to all who are suffering:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Moving on to Emerson, I asked Alban what makes a nation strong. His answer—everyone working together—is not far from the poet’s answer. To prepare him for the poem’s structure, I engaged in a little call and response. Are we strong because we are so wealthy? No! Are we strong because we have the world’s strongest military? No! Are we strong because we feel we are special? No. Why are we strong? Because we work together.

What makes a nation’s pillars high
And its foundations strong?
What makes it mighty to defy
The foes that round it throng?

It is not gold. Its kingdoms grand
Go down in battle shock;
Its shafts are laid on sinking sand,
Not on abiding rock.

Is it the sword? Ask the red dust
Of empires passed away;
The blood has turned their stones to rust,
Their glory to decay.

And is it pride? Ah, that bright crown
Has seemed to nations sweet;
But God has struck its luster down
In ashes at his feet.

Not gold but only men can make
A people great and strong;
Men who for truth and honor’s sake
Stand fast and suffer long.

Brave men who work while others sleep,
Who dare while others fly…
They build a nation’s pillars deep
And lift them to the sky.

Emerson’s vision of heroic self-reliance appealed to Alban, who wants to do the right thing. He thrills at the prospect of challenge.

Alban’s favorite poem of the three was Hughes’s “I, Too. ” Less formal than the other two, it speaks to his vision of working together. It speaks to a different kind of strength:

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

Hughes doesn’t regard himself as “wretched refuse” but, no less than Emma Lazarus, he aspires to America’s golden door. Or as he calls it in multiple poems, the “dream deferred. From our lesson Alban received a vision of opening ourselves to others and standing strong for truth and honor.

America needs all of us to affirm these values during these perilous times.

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Can GOP Wash Its Hands of Capitol Blood?

Fussli, Sleepwalking Lady Macbeth


Since I’ve encountered multiple references to Macbeth since the Capitol insurrection, it’s worth returning to the play. The more details that emerge about the event, the more Macbethian it appears. Apparently hostage taking and possibly executions were planned for certain members of Congress, and only the quick wits of a Capitol police officer kept the insurrectionists from bursting through doors of the Senate chamber while members were still in it.

Even Trump sycophant Mike Pence was a target after telling Trump it was not in his power to throw out the election results. Think of him as the Banquo of our drama.

The play, as we all know, is about a general who kills his king and then, in a classic rightwing maneuver, blames it on Antifa—excuse me, I mean the king’s two servants—whom he summarily slaughters. He gets the idea from three witches who can be regarded has projections of his own fevered imagination. Like Trump and the GOP, Macbeth and his wife sell their souls for power.

Once having achieved it, however, their paranoia only grows. Macbeth reasons that, if he himself is willing to kill for a kingship, than Banquo will be as well:

Macbeth: There is none but he
Whose being I do fear: and, under him,
My Genius is rebuked; as, it is said,
Mark Antony’s was by Caesar. He chid the sisters
When first they put the name of king upon me,
And bade them speak to him: then prophet-like
They hail’d him father to a line of kings:
Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown,
And put a barren sceptre in my gripe,
Thence to be wrench’d with an unlineal hand,
No son of mine succeeding. If ‘t be so,
For Banquo’s issue have I filed my mind;
For them the gracious Duncan have I murder’d;
Put rancours in the vessel of my peace
Only for them; and mine eternal jewel
Given to the common enemy of man,
To make them kings, the seed of Banquo kings!

Thus, like Trump complaining to his thugs know about Pence’s “betrayal,” Macbeth sends two murderers forth to dispatch his loyal companion. Like Trump, Macbeth retains plausible deniability of what they are to do:

Macbeth: Both of you
Know Banquo was your enemy.

Both Murderers:True, my lord.

Macbeth: So is he mine; and in such bloody distance,
That every minute of his being thrusts
Against my near’st of life: and though I could
With barefaced power sweep him from my sight
And bid my will avouch it, yet I must not,
For certain friends that are both his and mine,
Whose loves I may not drop, but wail his fall
Who I myself struck down; and thence it is,
That I to your assistance do make love,
Masking the business from the common eye
For sundry weighty reasons.

It should be noted that Banquo, while generally contrasted with Macbeth, is not entirely innocent. While, like Pence, he knows his leader has been up to no good, he let’s his own ambitions silence his qualms. After all, the witches have told him that his heirs will be kings:

Banquo: Thou [Macbeth] hast it now: king, Cawdor, Glamis, all,
As the weird women promised, and, I fear,
Thou play’dst most foully for’t: yet it was said
It should not stand in thy posterity,
But that myself should be the root and father
Of many kings. If there come truth from them–
As upon thee, Macbeth, their speeches shine–
Why, by the verities on thee made good,
May they not be my oracles as well,
And set me up in hope? 

Having killed Banquo, Macbeth finds himself alone in his last battle. Meanwhile, in a passage I’ve seen applied to Trump’s allies, Lady Macbeth finds she cannot wash away the stain of her part in her husband’s treason:

Lady Macbeth: Out, damned spot! out, I say!–One: two: why, then, ’tis time to do’t.–Hell is murky!–Fie, my lord, fie! a soldier, and afeard? What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?–Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him.

And further on

Lady Macbeth: Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh, oh, oh!

Although Trump’s GOP enablers are using disinformation tactics to distance themselves from the blood that has stained the Capitol, Shakespeare here points out that some stains go too deep to wash away.

In the past when I’ve made Trump-Macbeth comparisons, I’ve warned against seeing him as a tragic hero. His drama has been more farce than tragedy. Unlike Macbeth, Trump doesn’t lead his followers into battle but remains behind to watch the events on video. Macbeth at least has the capacity for self-reflection—“Life’s but a walking shadow”—whereas Trump is guided only by his narcissism. When Birnham Wood rises to administer an election defeat, Trump calls it fake news.

And so we have this wannabe Macbeth strutting and fretting his last hour upon the stage, soon to be heard no more. It has indeed been “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Previous posts applying Macbeth to Trumpism
–Oct. 2020: Trump and Covid: Tragedy or Farce
–March 2019: Are We Watching Shakespeare or Beckett?
–Jan 2019: Which Shakespeare Character Is Trump?
–Nov. 2018: Blackburn Unsexes Herself over Guns
–May 2018: Trump, Like Macbeth, Does Murder Sleep
–Dec. 2017: Trump and GOP as Shakespearean Drama
–Nov. 2016: Shakespeare Understood Trumpism
–Oct. 2016: Macduff, Trump, and “Untimely Ripped”

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Our Fragile Democracy

An insurrectionist desecrates the Capitol


Reader Matthew Currie has alerted me to a powerful Edna St. Vincent Millay poem that gets a some of the fragility many of us currently sense in the American experiment. “Underground System” was written in 1939 when Millay herself was feeling fragile, both because of the rise of fascism and the repercussions of a car accident.

Like many Americans, all my life I have assumed that this nation’s foundational principles were solid. I recognize that in some ways this speaks to my privileged existence as a middle-class white man, but it’s not only whites that have been shocked. I think of my black students’ dismay following Trump’s election: they thought they were living in Obama’s America, only to discover that a racist, xenophobic, misogynist, billionaire conman could be elected president.

As white insurrectionists desecrated the Capitol building, I thought of Marx’s lyrical description of capitalism shredding the old order: “All that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is profaned…” The passage itself borrows an image from Prospero’s speech in The Tempest:

These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. 

I’m not yet prepared to concede that white supremacists are spelling the end of American democracy, symbolized by our own cloud-capped towers, gorgeous palaces, and solemn temples. I do admit to Millay’s uneasiness, however. The “crust of the world” is thinner than I realized:

Set the foot down with distrust upon the crust of
    the world – it is thin.
Moles are at work beneath us; they have tunneled
    the sub-soil
With separate chambers; which at an appointed
Could be as one, could intersect and interlock.  We
    walk on the skin
Of life.  No toil
Of rake or hoe, no lime, no phosphate, no rotation
    of crops, no irrigation of the land,
Will coax the limp and flattened grain to stand
On that bad day, or feed to strength the nibbled
    roots of our nation.

Ease has demoralized us, nearly so; we know
Nothing of the rigors of winter: the house has a 
    roof against – the car a top against – the snow.
All will be well, we say; it is a habit, like the rising
    of the sun,
For our country to prosper; who can prevail against
    us? No one.

The house has a roof; but the boards of its floor are
    rotting, and hall upon hall
The moles have built their palace beneath us: we
    have not far to fall.

Since the Capitol’s desecration, we have learned that many of the insurrectionists were well off, with many having incomes well over over $100,000. In other words, they know “nothing of the rigors of winter.” But if ease has not demoralized them, it has at least provided them with an environment where their paranoid fantasies can run wild. People who work two jobs a day to sustain themselves don’t have hours to spend on Nazi internet sites.

Because we are the world’s preeminent military power, no other nation can “prevail against us,” but at such moments our floorboards seem to be rotting. To borrow from the poem, it’s all very well to say that all will be well, acting as though it’s inevitable that our country will prosper. The January 6 insurrection, however, warns us that moles eat away at our foundations.

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The Gods Wait to Delight in You

Frans Hals, Laughing Boy (1625)

Spiritual Sunday

What a week we’ve had, what with record Covid deaths and an attempted insurrection. For momentary relief, I share this Charles Bukowski poem. I like the way the poet talks about “the gods,” which are those dimensions of the universe that escape our human understanding. When we open ourselves to them, miracles happen.

As Bukowski observes, while there “may not be much light,” what little light there is “beats the darkness.”

The Laughing Heart

your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you chances.
know them.
take them.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight
in you.

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A Man with Soul so Dead

Trump inciting followers to storm Capitol


I shared this Sir Walter Scott poem exactly a month ago but it’s even more relevant today given how Trump egged on a mob to seize the Capitol building and pressure Congress members to overturn the election results. It appears in Scott’s book-length poem The Lay of the Minstrel.

My Native Land

   Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
   This is my own, my native land!
Whose heart hath ne’er within him burn’d,
As home his footsteps he hath turn’d
   From wandering on a foreign strand!
If such there breathe, go, mark him well;
For him no Minstrel raptures swell;
High though his titles, proud his name,
Boundless his wealth as wish can claim;—
Despite those titles, power, and pelf,
The wretch, concentered all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust, from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonored, and unsung.

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Trump’s and Shakespeare’s Mobs

Insurrectionist Jack Cade strikes the London stone


In Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part II, the ambitious third duke of York, Richard, enlists former officer Jack Cade to instigate a mob uprising in the hopes of overthrowing Henry. Richard makes his designs clear:  he wants to “reap the harvest which that rascal sow’d.”

To so-called Cade rebellion is temporarily successful, as has been the seizure of the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters. Civil War breaks out—the War of the Roses, with the Yorks pitted against the Lancasters—and in the ensuing turmoil first the Lancastrian Henry VI and then the Yorkist Richard III die. Eventually Henry Tudor prevails, becoming Henry VII.

Henry VI hearing news of the rebellion makes me think of Joe Biden receiving updates:

Jack Cade hath almost gotten London Bridge;
The citizens fly and forsake their houses;
The rascal people, thirsting after prey,
Join with the traitor; and they jointly swear
To spoil the city and your royal court.

Cade’s rebellion, like Trump’s, is anti-intellectual. After Cade sets himself up as London mayor, he executes the innocent Clerk of Chartham for the “crime” of being able to read and write:

Thou hast most traitorously corrupted the youth of the realm in erecting a grammar-school; and whereas, before, our forefathers had no other books but the score and the tally, thou has caused printing to be us’d.

Trump has conducted a non-stop war on the press, calling them “the enemy of the people,” and now we are being terrorized by people with their own set of facts about the election. Even though Cade himself is killed, the chaos he creates serves Richard’s purposes. Henry is eventually overthrown and assassinated.

I still don’t think Trump or his mobs will prevail, but I’ve underestimated Trump’s resilience so many times that I can no longer say that with confidence.

Further thought: One of Cade’s followers, Dick the Butcher, is responsible for the well-known quote, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Essentially he’s calling for the overthrow of the rule of law. Trump, of course, has utter contempt for our country’s laws, including the 60+ legal opinions declaring the election to have been free and fair. Time and again Trump has attacked and frequently fired those trying to uphold the legal system.

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The Dangerous Final Months of Covid


My wife took my 95-year-old mother to get the Covid vaccine the other day—in our Tennessee county it’s supposedly available to those over 75—but the school parking lot was full when they arrived, with an even longer line of cars waiting to get in. A cop informed them that there were only 300 doses, which meant that it was pointless to join the line.

All of this was sparked by an e-mail that some received and others didn’t. In other words, distribution here is haphazard. Meanwhile, American Covid deaths have passed 350,000 and continue to climb. We’ll be closing in on 400,000 by Inauguration Day.

Because I’ve been reading Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dodd mysteries, many set during World War I and World II, I think of those people who died in the final days before the Nov. 11, 1918 armistice. It seems a particularly cruel twist that people should go down when the finish line is in sight. Wilfred Owen, author of England’s greatest anti-war poems, died while fighting on Nov. 4. The groundbreaking French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, weakened by an injury, died of the Spanish flu on Nov. 9.

In American Agent, Maisie interviews a woman whose husband died in October, 1918, the day before he was due to come home on leave. The woman uses the finish line analogy as Maisie commiserates:

“I am so sorry—how very sad. So close to the Armistice.”

“Just before the finish line. I am inclined to think he was so excited about coming home he stopped paying attention, as if he’d imagined it so many times, he was already here, so he became careless.

I think of Covid as I think of World War I: so many people died who didn’t have to. Just as history has lacerated those who got us into that war, it will deal severely with those who botched the Covid response.

As for the rest of us, there’s more need for care now than there ever was. This is no time to let up.

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Looking for Non-Existent Voter Fraud

Catherine looks for evidence in Northanger Abbey


Finally—finally!—some Republican legislators are standing up to Donald Trump’s attempt to steal the 2020 election. After years of tolerating Trump’s empty accusations, they are rediscovering their belief in democracy. Perhaps the recording of the president pressuring Georgia’s Republican secretary of state to “find” more Trump votes was the final straw.

To the few who continue to hold out, especially ringleader senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, I send out the passage in Northanger Abbey where Henry Tilney chastises Catherine for a conspiracy theory she has developed. As a result of reading gothic novels, Catherine suspects General Tilney of having disposed of his wife, to which Tilney responds,

If I understand you rightly, you had formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to—Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighborhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?”

The mere fact that neither party could get away with the kind of fraud that Trump alleges should be enough to end the talk. We too have newspapers and voluntary spies. We too live in a civilized country with laws, and we too have an education system that should have trained us to see through conspiracy theories.

Following Tilney’s lecture, Catherine runs out of the room in tears. In other words, unlike Cruz and Hathey, she is capable of shame. She also profits from the lecture, learning to reject gothic theories and to see through the self-serving claims of those around her.

Tilney is overly optimistic that “our education prepare[s] us for such atrocities” since Cruz and Hawley both attended ivy league schools that pride themselves on teaching critical thinking. I suppose education counts for little, however, if they are simply two cynical opportunists who think that shamelessly selling out their country is a small price to pay for Trump’s supporters supporters. Even Austen’s villains, with the possible exception of Persuasion’s Mr. Eliot, aren’t that base.

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