The Blinding Flag
Originally published October 3, 2001 for USC Writing 140
The photographic composition, Farewell to Faraway Friends, 1971, is the culmination of artist Bas Ader’s attempt to resolve the relationship between the contrasting Dutch and American influences that shaped his identity. Both the romantic interpretation of art popular in Europe, and the industrialized artwork of California are represented in Ader’s piece. This combination of styles was done purposefully to illustrate that the two cultures could reside within one individual while maintaining harmony.
When Ader traveled from the Netherlands to California, he left behind a continent of romantic history. Its landscapes were the backdrop for religious paintings, vast empires, and the kingdoms of divine rulers. European romantic artwork served to illustrate the divine beauty of God’s creations. Drawing from these influences, Ader selected a sunset on the coast of the United States as his subject matter. The ocean beyond the coast serves as a theater for romantic adventure, a link to all that Ader left behind in the Netherlands.
This romantic representation has another side, however, a cold industrial side. This arises from the fact that the California Ader had arrived in was a fast-changing hotbed of industrial advancement. World War II had created in Los Angeles an environment of industrial growth spurred on by the need for war-time materials. This shift in culture impacted the social characteristics and institutions of Southern California causing industrialized art, or rather commercialized art, to emerge. Ader’s sunset shares this industrial quality, in addition to its romantic nature, reminiscent of commercialized images commonly found in wall calendars or mass-produced postcards.
Being a member of the Conceptual Movement, Ader composed his artwork with the intention that its meaning should change over time to reflect its current audience. In 1971, Farewell to Faraway Friends served to show the symbiosis that can exist between the multiple heritages of an individual. Seen today, however, Ader’s image can be interpreted with a different meaning. The sun set on the eastern horizon can be seen as the failure of the artist’s primary homeland to counteract the much stronger influence of Americanism. As Ader looks into the distance from the American shore, the sense is that he must leave behind the culture of the Netherlands in exchange for that of the United States. This impression is further reinforced by the pieces title, Farewell to Faraway Friends. The faraway friends Ader refers to are the last ties holding Ader to the Netherlands. As the sun sets, he is forced by the power of American nationalism to relinquish those ties in order to claim his place as an American artist.
The two vastly different interpretations of Ader’s artwork reflect the cyclical nature of American citizenship. Almost as if it was illuminated by the light of the sun, throughout history American citizenship has expanded to include diverse populations only to later contract to encompass narrow demographics. The latter situation is especially true in times of war or social strife, such as has occurred during the last few weeks with terrorist activity in Washington D.C. and New York City. Americanism in the United States serves to unite the diverse populations that inhabit its borders in order to protect the freedoms they share, however, it is often a regrettable side effect that the same Americanism which binds society together has the power to obscure the very diversity it strives to protect, instead acting as a force of cultural sterilization.
The freedom to live according to one’s beliefs is one of the fundamental principles of the United States, traceable to the very first settlers who braved New England’s shores. Although some came to America in search of fortune, a notable number of others sought out the opportunity to establish society within a culturally vacant continent. The Puritans, who arrived in the late 1600s fleeing religious persecution, formed one of the first unions in what would become the framework for the future of the United States. They agreed to come together to face the challenge of relocating entire families and drastically altering their lifestyles. The basis of these changes was the promise of greater freedom to live in accordance with the belief structure integral to Puritan heritage.
Initially, the necessity of survival caused the sphere of freedom’s influence to spread outside of Puritan society, encompassing Native Americans encountered in the new world as well. Through sharing knowledge and trading resources, both the Puritans and Native Americans were able to benefit from the temporary symbiosis that existed. Eventually, however, imminent danger passed and the Puritans were able to organize a self-sustaining community. Used to the practice of land ownership, Puritans began to enclose segments of farmland. The concept of fenced, private land was foreign to the Native Americans, so they were reluctant to heed Puritan boundaries. In addition, the Native American lifestyle attracted numerous Puritans away from communities in desperate need of citizens. In response, Puritan leaders began to proclaim an early form of Americanism. They defined the state of being American in terms of the Puritan lifestyle, a lifestyle that avoided the wilderness and worshiped a single god. The result of this narrowing in the comprehensiveness of Americanism was that Native American beliefs and lifestyles became pagan rites and heathen actions, no longer considered American. Thus, the sun, which had once shone brightly on a diversified society, now set on the environment outside the Puritan townships as they bode farewell to the Native Americans and those who supported them.
Years later, the sun rose once again as the American continent transformed into the United States, land of opportunity. Immigrant families began to come to the United States hoping to escape crop failures or economic strife. For example, my grandmother’s parents could no longer sustain themselves through a family farm in Southern Italy, so entered the workforce of New York City. Others came to the United States to seek asylum from political turmoil. This was the case with my grandfather’s family who, as members of the Tzar’s Army in Russia at the time the Tzar was overthrown, faced execution or imprisonment. As these migrations continued, the United States became a melting pot of cultures. That diversity gave the country a foundation for progress. Each group of people who came to America brought with them the characteristics of their heritage and thus added to the pool of moral, social, and idealistic attitudes present in the United States. The end result of the ongoing cross-cultural acceptance can be seen in the form of inter-marriages, such as that between my Russian-Polish-Jewish mother and Italian-Irish-Catholic father. Since each culture had come to the United States seeking relief in some form, a positive Americanism began return to the continent. Diverse cultures were once again coming together to better their lifestyles and protect the freedoms they valued.
The advancements that came out of the United States’ rich cultural rainbow propelled the economy and society forward into uncharted areas. Immigrants arrived on the shores of America skilled in textile work, oil refinement, agriculture, industry, science and numerous other areas. Each new skill that arrived on American soil signaled a new opportunity for the country’s advancement. The shared belief in Americanism, in the American Dream for prosperity and happiness, by so many different demographics allowed them to set aside disputes that had their roots on the European continent and move forward in a new world.
Once again, however, the development of a threat against the society of the United States would prompt the definition of what it meant to be American to narrow, this time brought about by the events of World War II. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, fear of being attacked at home reentered the minds of United States’ citizens for the first time since the Civil War. As a result, the United States banded together under its common red, white and blue to become America, a country reserved for Americans. Political leaders, religious leaders, and common citizens proclaimed that it was time to forget clashing cultural backgrounds. They urged all the American people to rally against the new foreign enemy.
Initially, the cries for Americanism were seen as positive and beneficial to a nation shattered by war, and, in fact, they were. Citizens who traced their heritages to nations that, at one point or another in history, had clashed came together for the common good. Irish Americans, such as my grandfather, served in the same army as English Americans or French Americans while retaining their respective cultures and traditions. The desire of each segment of the population to protect its individual identity prompted soldiers to ignore race, religion, and culture. Americanism allowed tradition to continue while uniting the masses for a common effort.
At the same time Americanism in the United States began to bring about cooperation and community for the majority of Americans, the sun set once more upon any nation not among the Allied Forces. This placed many citizens in precarious situations, forced either to relinquish their ties to foreign states or to be labeled a traitor to the United States. Albert Einstein faced the reality of having to develop nuclear technology that would potentially be used against his homeland. Italian and Chinese citizens had to ignore the plights of their people if they were to support the Allied Forces. Worst of all, however, was the exclusion of Japanese Americans form the group of citizens included under the umbrella of Americanism.
Much like had been the case with the Native American, Puritan relationship, many citizens in the united states felt that Japanese residents could serve to bring the despised Japanese culture into the United States, poisoning its society. This fear resulted in the arrest and internment of the Japanese Americans in to camps under the premise of protection against harassment and racism. This practice continued, although numerous reports showed that the Japanese Americans were of no threat to the United States, and were, in fact, loyal to the American cause. Decades later, in the 1980s, well after the Civil Rights Movement, the United States’ Congress apologized to Japanese Americans and encouraged all citizens to embrace diversity in an effort to eradicate racism on a global scale. As the government reached out in apology to Japanese Americans, and established strong diplomatic relations with the Land of the Rising Sun, the radius of Americanism broadened once again to protect the freedoms of a revised group of American citizens.
After World War II, the United States faced few threats on its own soil until the week of September 11, 2001 when terrorism arrived within the boarders of America, repeating the cycle of violence that plagues all nations of the world. During this same week, the United States also repeated another cycle as it transformed into a country narrowly focused on itself yet again. The immediate reaction following the destruction of the World Trade Center was one of shock. People from all over the country, of all nationalities and cultures, expressed their pain in response to the destruction. Citizens across the nation began to purchase American flags, to recite American songs, and to cry out for an American effort to thwart terrorism. For the first few hours following the terrorist attacks, the United States was a country of Americans, united as one nation. It was inspirational to see people come together to donate food, time, and compassion as one united group. Americanism united people from across the spectrum of the United States. Democrats and Republicans worked together, neither attempting to gain the upper hand in the ensuing political drama, instead focusing on the needs of an entire nation. Citizens were able to balance their individual beliefs with the needs of the entire country, churches and temples joining for prayer, environmentalists and businessmen donating blood. Soon, however, the American people began to seek out a guilty party and that party was provided by the media, Islamic terrorists.
Following the pronouncement that Islamic terrorists, led by Osama Bin Laden, were the criminals responsible for the World Trade Center catastrophe, Americans at all levels called for revenge. The President of the United States declared that only two sides exist in the war against terrorism, the terrorist sympathizers and the United States with its allies. Suddenly the world was once again bifurcated into the categories of us and them. Cars and buildings were adorned with American flags. People proudly wore flag patterned clothing, a practice that would have garnered much criticism days earlier. In Arizona, flags that had proudly displayed the red, white and green of Mexico disappeared in favor of those that displayed red, white and blue. The citizens of the United States of America came together in opposition to the Islamic world, a world that applauded terrorism. What happened next could have been easily predicted by looking at the prior events cited within this paper, the definition of citizenship narrowed, the loyalty of American Muslims was questioned.
Like the Native Americans and the artist gazing out upon the east, Middle Eastern citizens of the United States, and those who resemble them, have been forced to assimilate more fully into American culture or to endure the alternative possibility of losing their citizenship in the eyes of the American people. The affects of this phenomena are not limited to the confines of New York City, but rather are present throughout the nation. One case, that of an Indian acquaintance of mine at USC, brings the nation’s distress uncomfortably close to the local academic community. The young man in question is of the Sikh faith, a branch of Hinduism. Sikhs are recognizable due to the religious requirement that they wear a turban to cover their uncut hair. Unfortunately, the turban worn by those of Sikh faith is wrongly associated by Americans with the image of Islamic terrorists. In Phoenix, Arizona, a Sikh individual was murdered for wearing a turban by American reactionaries. Stories such as this caused the young Sikh at USC to take off his turban in favor of an American baseball cap, quite an irony. Fear caused him to relinquish one of five important symbols for his faith in favor of a symbol representing the entity that instilled that fear, in support of an America that was blinded by its patriotism.
Situations such as those of the arrival of settlers to the American continent, World War II, and recent terrorism, bring to light the cyclical nature of Americanism. At least thus far in the history of the United States, Americanism has served both to assist and to harm the freedoms Americans seek to protect. It is imperative that, at the present time and in the future, the people of the United States embrace the many cultures extant within their midst. The initials of the United States, when written without punctuation, read simply “US.” It will be determined in the coming decades wether that “us” stands for us, the diverse mixture of cultures and ideas, or us, the uniform society of Americans. The first us suggests a society able to adapt, change, and advance to improve its world. A society diverse in the arts, rich in heritage, and unlimited in possibility. The second “us,” on the other hand, conjures images of an America that refuses to accept differences present in foreign societies. An America that, like the Puritans, rejects conflicting thought because it fears impending change or difference in its existing society. The United States should strive for an eternal equinox, attempting to ensure the diversity of its citizens always remains in the spotlight.