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Monday, September 11, 2006


I Wrap Myself In The Flag. Under The Cloth I Can Feel My Ribs Move. Everything Goes Hack.

Cartoonist Frank Miller's "This I Believe" (Johnny Calhoun's spoken word album, anyone?) essay is up at the NPR website. Entitled "That Old Piece Of Cloth", it's Miller's reflection on patriotism in the wake of the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks:
I was just a boy in the 1960s. My adolescence wasn't infused with the civil rights struggle or the sexual revolution or the Vietnam War, but with their aftermath.

My high school teachers were ex-hippies and Vietnam vets. People who protested the war and people who served as soldiers. I was taught more about John Lennon than I was about Thomas Jefferson.

Both of my parents were World War II veterans. FDR-era patriots. And I was exactly the age to rebel against them.

It all fit together rather neatly. I could never stomach the flower-child twaddle of the '60s crowd and I was ready to believe that our flag was just an old piece of cloth and that patriotism was just some quaint relic, best left behind us.

It was all about the ideas. I schooled myself in the writings of Madison and Franklin and Adams and Jefferson. I came to love those noble, indestructible ideas. They were ideas, to my young mind, of rebellion and independence, not of idolatry.

But not that piece of old cloth. To me, that stood for unthinking patriotism. It meant about as much to me as that insipid peace sign that was everywhere I looked: just another symbol of a generation's sentimentality, of its narcissistic worship of its own past glories.

Then came that sunny September morning when airplanes crashed into towers a very few miles from my home and thousands of my neighbors were ruthlessly incinerated -- reduced to ash. Now, I draw and write comic books. One thing my job involves is making up bad guys. Imagining human villainy in all its forms. Now the real thing had shown up. The real thing murdered my neighbors. In my city. In my country. Breathing in that awful, chalky crap that filled up the lungs of every New Yorker, then coughing it right out, not knowing what I was coughing up.

For the first time in my life, I know how it feels to face an existential menace. They want us to die. All of a sudden I realize what my parents were talking about all those years.

Patriotism, I now believe, isn't some sentimental, old conceit. It's self-preservation. I believe patriotism is central to a nation's survival. Ben Franklin said it: If we don't all hang together, we all hang separately. Just like you have to fight to protect your friends and family, and you count on them to watch your own back.

So you've got to do what you can to help your country survive. That's if you think your country is worth a damn. Warts and all.

So I've gotten rather fond of that old piece of cloth. Now, when I look at it, I see something precious. I see something perishable.
In and of itself, the essay is fuzzy, either because the public radio venue made Miller cautious, or because his mind simply works this way. To that extent I suppose the essay really doesn't matter, just another minor example of NPR's drift toward the right. But as Chuck Klosterman has said, "what matters is that nothing is ever 'in and of itself'". What matters is Miller's context, and the implications of his vague conclusions.

9/11 had a huge effect on Miller. It has apparently resolved any ambivalence in the questions about authority and freedom he has devoted much of his career to examining, from Daredevil through Dark Knight to 300 and his current project "Holy Terror, Batman!' in which the Caped Crusader will take on Al Qaeda itself, in what Miller openly calls "propaganda."

His inital, quite different reaction, captured in the 2002 anthology 9/11: Artists Respond, was a page of shock-induced nihilism: "I'm sick of flags, I'm sick of god, I've seen the power of faith." A few years remove can make quite a bit of difference. More recently, Miller has promoted the Batman/Al Qaeda book by more or less cribbing the Ann Coulter world-view:
...Miller doesn't hold back on the true purpose of the book, calling it "a piece of propoganda," where 'Batman kicks al Qaeda's ass."

The reason for this work, Miller said, was "an explosion from my gut reaction of what's happening now." He can't stand entertainers who lack the moxie of their '40s counterparts who stood up to Hitler. Holy Terror is "a reminder to people who seem to have forgotten who we're up against."
Miller clearly now believes America is faced with a very real threat to its very existence. In other words, he's scared, and if you're not scared like him you're stupid or asleep. It's hard to not read a measure of relief in Miller's words as he describes the altogether successful effect the terrorists have had on him. Fear has ordered his world, clarified his thinking, resolved his vision into Sin City black and white. Shocked into recognition that the US doesn't sit comfortably outside of history, but is part of it, he has embraced the security of faith in his nation's flag.

Miller has always considered himself an independent thinker, as evidenced by his long-standing suspicion of right and left that he uses to frame his NPR piece. Still, it's not surprising to see him now throw in his lot with the 101st Fighting Keyboard Kommandos against enemies both external and internal. Note that, in both quotes above, Miller's immediate concern is not with the hordes of evil-doers who want us all dead, but with his fellow Americans who apparently suffer from what Don Rumsfeld recently called "intellectual or moral confusion" because they question or criticize our country's response to terrorism.
"So you've got to do what you can to help your country survive. That's if you think your country is worth a damn. Warts and all." What is that but "My country right or wrong" in so many words? "America, love it or leave it"? "Warts and all" is a brazen way to brush aside torture, domestic spying...fuck it, incipient totalitarianism. Just when are we allowed to talk about the warts, Frank? When there's a zero percent chance terrorism will ever strike our shores again? Good luck with that. I cannot escape the serendipity of exestential threat for those with authoritarian impulses--The Thing That Ate Western Civilzation so happens to provide one-size-fits-all justification for ever more stringent security measures, ever more restrictions of personal freedom...because "you have no civil liberties when you're dead" as Republican politicians have taken to saying.

But here's the thing. What Miller takes as wide-eyed realism, a raising of consciouness that has transformed his thinking and made him, by his definition, a proudly awakened American patriot, I take as a form of cowardice. This morning I read a new anonymous comment on an old (and now wrong, he ain't dropping out) post of mine about Joe Lieberman; anon's comment read in part:
Until we 'persuade' the good parts of Islam to do away with the parts that still strap bombs on martyrs and expect 72 virgins for it, then all of us, even peace-loving comic-book collecting Democrats are in some dire straits.
These guys positively get boners about this shit. There's nothing they love so much as their new Hitlers coming to kill them and burn their porn collections. And however else Miller might philosophically part from the Keyboarders, here, he's in perfect accordance. Islamic terrorism allows all of them the ability to abase themselves before the Greatest Generation,
to apologize for dismissing old-fashioned world-views, and play at putting on their parents' or grandparents' WW2 uniforms. or the costumes of WW2 era comic book creators (many of whom actually enlisted). Or something.

Of course, there's the possibility that the existential threat may be somewhat overhyped, as this NYT Week In Review piece suggests:
As time has passed without a new attack, the voices of skeptics who believe that 9/11 was more a fluke than a harbinger are beginning to be heard.

“A perfectly plausible explanation is that there are no terrorists here,” said John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State University who advances the doubters’ case in an article in Foreign Affairs. “I don’t say there’s no threat, but the threat has been massively exaggerated.”
But that is likely to be discounted by those (presidents, defense secretaries, pundits, comic book writers) who find looming apocalypse with its stark battle lines, potential for self-aggrandizement and self-abasement, and convenient pretexts for the accrual of state power too tempting, too satisfying, too self-justifying to ever relinquish. We are called fools or worse by people who wet their beds and point to the piss stain as a proof of their courage.

Update: Speaking of WW2 comparison rhetoric from Bush on down, the always brilliant Digby sums up what I'm trying to say in far fewer words, in the post "Pimping the Greatest Generation":
This rhetoric of epic struggle that rivals WWII and The Cold War serves the simple political purpose of rallying the conservative base so that the Republicans can maintain power. It is guided by the deep psychological need for conservative baby boomers to find some meaning in their pathetic lives and a cynical attempt to co-opt some sunny, simple vision of the Greatest Generation --- who would be the last people to claim the depression and the wars of their lifetimes were either sunny or simple. The younger conservative generation sees it as a cynical political game, which it is.

The entire campaign is built on a Disneyfied version of WWII and boomer childhood nightmare cartoons of The Cold War. They trying to squeeze all the boogeymen of the 20th century into Osama bin Laden's turban in the hope that they can cop a little bit of that Hollywood heroism themselves. (After all, their hero Ronald Reagan didn't actually fight in any real war either --- he just remembered the movies he was in and thought he had.) It is deeply, deeply unserious.

What is perfectly horrible about Miller's railing against the "hippie/leftist" culture is that he has found a home in the cult of fear, and has yet to turn the same powers of judgement and scorn towards the right wing of our country. One would have hoped as an artist that he might be a little more selfaware about this, but he's not. He's completed the transition to right wing zealot that he was defending himself against back in the 80's with Dark Knight. Very interesting.

Frank, yes, we know that you're scared, but you've taken the easy path out. You;ve turned your considerable narrative powers over to the side of lies and simple truths. It is so much easier than taking the time to realize how much of this mess we created for ourselves over the last 40 years of scorched earth foreign policy, and how W. is makiing it all the worse by applying "Comic book" solutions to a real world problem.
Terrific essay. It's just a shame that Frank himself won't get to read it. He always seemed such a reasonable man - this new direction is sickening and confusing, but your argument rationalises his stance (without excusing it) very well.

By the way, I bounced over here after reading your thoughtful stance on the whole Harvey Dent/Jonah Hex thing over at Absorbascon. Trivial by comparison I know, but good work on that front anyway.
The problem is not that al Quaeda is weak, but that we've essentially made al-Quaeda into far more of a "threat" than they ever were. They were always a top-heavy, upper-class ideologically motivated clique in search of an army. The fact that 9/11 represented (probably) the peak of their capabilities is unimportant in context with the fact that our reaction to the event was the greatest single pro-Quaeda recruitment poster they could ever have devised.

So the problem isn't that terrorism is not a problem, but that unless something totally unforeseen occurs, were goign to be stuck facing underprepared, undermotivated and damn annoying mosquitos with limited tactical capabilities for decades. People like Sadr - thugs who get ahold of ideology as an excuse to perpetuate a prison-bred gang mentality - or the recent foiled airline bombers. In other words, the threats aren't disappaearing, but our response to them is radically out of proportion and, frankly, accords the current generation of Jihadis far more respect than they are due. They're punks, and battling them requires a return to an emphasis on the brick & mortar basics of our law enforcement and legal systems - boring, unsexy, apolitical, but with a far better track record than any of our military actions in this field to date.

Of course, saying that 95% of modern jihadis are pumped-up thugs really won't motivate the electorate compared to other, more satisfying brands of fear mongering. But when we've got real threats that do require a more concentrated and focussed application of our military and diplomatic efforts, its a damn shame. Plus, you know, just plain stupid.
Stupid like Bush repeatedly comparing Bin Laden to Stalin and Hitler, and simultaneouly saying it's not worth the effort to go after him.

I think you're absolutely right, Tim. Which is why it's frustrating to see headlines like "Bush and Bin Laden Engaged in Media War" when it's obvious that they're not fighting, they're flirting.

That aside, it's a shame to see folks like Frank Miller, whose work I've liked over the years, buy into the overblown, apocalyptic view of the situation that effectively fuels it. I get the impression that he's eagerly willing the problem into the epic clash of civilizations that his psyche seems to require. Obviously, he's far from the only one attracted to war as means of self-definition and validation, a way of pennance for youthful callowness. Too bad these bullshit psychodramas are played out with so many other people's lives. Miller suggests that a career in comics has givne him insight into good and evil. I'd say comic books have definitely shaped his views.
Boy is this post full of ignorance.

You seem to make a case for the fact that there is absolutley nothing to be concerned with.

You seem to suggest that the 1300 year history of Islam is completely irrelevant and uninstructive.

You seem to argue that "Terrorism" is our only enemy. Have you ever STUDIED something called "Jihad?"

Or do you simply get your knowledge about Jihad from other people, like yourself, who have never even looked into it? People who have never read the Koran? People who are unaware of the Life that Mohammed led?

Do YOURSELF a favor. Go READ about the Life of Mohammed, his murders, rapes, child molestation, theft, torture (and I dont mean waterboarding), lies, incitement to violence, sexual problems, hate, and illiteracy.

Go READ the Koran and the Hadiths while you are at it. Go READ the History of Arab Conquest that ended in France. The History of Ottoman Muslims Destroying Byzantium because of thier Religion. The History of the Siege of Vienna. The Ottomans role in WWI, and the Empire THEY LOST THROUGH THIER CONSTANT WARS!

Muslims problem is Islam. Islams Problem is the Koran. The Korans problem is that Mohammed was an Illiterate, Depressed, Suicidal, Narcissistic, Psychopath, with a Bloodlust and severe Sexual Dysfunctions.

Oh Yeah. And in the Islamic Religion, Mohammed is THE Role Model for all time.

You are an uninformed ignoramus, nothing more.
I said it a year and a half ago, and I'll say it again:

"We are called fools or worse by people who wet their beds and point to the piss stain as a proof of their courage."
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