Notes from the Cultural Wasteland
Y'know, you can have a flag on your car and still be an asshole.
I'm probably about average when it comes to road-rage-reactions; I usually curse under my breath and maybe yell a little through my (closed) window, but rarely bother flipping anyone off, much less consider doing them or their vehicles harm, and I usually don't remember the incident for more than a few minutes.
For some reason, when a guy driving a little American flag-spattered Honda cut me off in traffic, I felt differently. I even fantasized about following the guy and kicking his ass. I really, really wanted to rip the flags off his aerial, his windows, and his bumper and stuff them up his tailpipe--and his exhaust pipe, too.
I was surprised by my reaction, and noted especially that the flags annoyed me. Not the flags themselves, but the fact that the jerk thought having a bunch of flags on his car indoctrinated him into a special group of instant American heroes and thus somehow excused him of his schmucky driving.
Having flags on one's car doesn't undo the other crappy stuff we do, or the decent stuff we should do but don't. And in spite of our patriotism, our hero-worshipping rhetoric, and the lip service we'šve paid to our new-found "unity," many of us still haven't learned to treat each other with respect, much less care for each other.
As a nation, we have sustained a tragic loss--we lost a characteristic chunk of the New York City skyline; we lost thousands of lives; and perhaps most tragically, we lost much of our sense of security. Many people, including psychologists, school counselors, and a U.S. Postal Service (USPS) spokesperson, have told me in interviews that we want to feel like we're doing something about it.
Sticking flags on our cars, of course, is one way to feel like we're doing something. Contributing to one of the funds set up to deal with the disaster is another, as is wearing little red, white and blue ribbons. However, the USPS guy had a great idea: "If you want to do something constructive," he suggested, "you should consider spending the money on a charity that you trust and believe in. There are funds that would appreciate a donation of even a dollar."
That suggestion makes a lot of sense. Many charitable organizations will end this year under-funded, and most attribute that to a weak economy and to most people focusing their charitable gifts on the high-visibility, September 11-related funds.
Even some people directly affected by the World Trade Center disaster are having problems. According to the New York Post, many relatives of victims of the attack "are turning bitter as their bills pile up" because the widows and children of stockbrokers, file clerks, and receptionists who were killed in the attack are being turned away by charities that were set up to help the families of the firefighters and cops.
No sane person would dispute the heroism of the NYC firefighters and cops, of course. However, America is filled with heroes. In the last few months, I've talked to many of them, and only a few wore uniforms.
Instead, they spend evenings staffing domestic violence shelters so abused women and children have a safe place to go. They spend long hours at arts organizations so your culture will consist of something besides an endless stream of reality TV. They spend weekends maintaining trails so people like you and I can hike safely into the wilderness.
For example, a volunteer coordinator for one organization told me of a social group of Indian Americans (not American Indians) who went into their own pockets to raised money for Meals on Wheels, went shopping, then got together with their children to pack groceries and wrap presents for a few hundred aging and infirm shut-ins.
A middle school teacher told me about a "a wonderful volunteer" who meets with a dozen or so kids; they come to school a half-hour early once a week to learn crafts and make gifts for hospice patients--people who are terminally ill and dying.
I'm no apologist for Islam; I like it no better than any other religion. However, we might, as our culture clashes with that of the Middle East, try to learn about its finer points. For example, in The Religions of Man, Huston Smith relates a story in the Islamic literature: One of Mohammed's followers came to him, crying, "My mother is dead; what is the best alms I can give away for the good of her soul?" Mohammed answered, "Dig a well for her, and give water to the thirsty."
Perhaps this holiday season we might take Mohammed's advice and "give water to the thirsty."
Perhaps we could give alms by contributing to those under-sung heroes who help us make our communities--and our global village--a better place in which to live. Putting a flag on our car might make us feel better about America. However, spending that "flag money" on our community organizations--or even standing side by side with those heroes, helping them do their work--will make our America better.
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