If that’s what it takes to pay the bills, an older and wiser Jim Jividen will kiss any flag that’s placed in front of him.
About 15 years ago, I ripped an American flag clean in half.
I should probably clarify.
About 15 years ago, when I was just starting to teach, I had a lesson on symbolic speech where I asked students if my tearing up an American flag would be offensive.
After getting some measure of equal action on both sides I took a piece of notebook paper, spent about 30 seconds pencil drawing a flag, that, while having the appropriate sections where 50 stars and 13 stripes might be located, was really just a collection of squiggles that I nonetheless called “An American Flag” before I tore the paper in half to a healthy howl of protest.
The discussion then unfolded about the nature of personal offense and when it is that legislation is an appropriate remedy to protect from that offense and finally about why it is that students saw an American flag in that piece of paper, despite (more evident upon my reconstruction of said paper, Ta-Da!) only the label to reasonably indicate such. I maybe mentioned Rene Magritte, or at least sang a little of that one Paul Simon song, ‘cause dude could get pretentious back in the day.
I used to say it wasn’t a good lesson unless someone was a little unsettled; exercising your brain is like any other muscle – if it’s not sort of uncomfortable you probably aren’t doing it right. Like most of my stuff, any blowback dissipated by the end of the week, and I was on to the next mildly provocative lesson, probably about why I would have voted to acquit OJ Simpson.
But this was an Age Before the Wars. Not the actual wars, the ones in the Middle East with hundreds of thousands of fatalities, but instead before the Imaginary Wars on Christmas and Easter. Before the days when half of the Republicans in the country were of the view that Christianity should become our national religion and “Happy Holidays” became an epithet. So, when a Communications professor at Florida Atlantic University recently taught a similar lesson by having students write the word “Jesus” on a piece of paper and step on it – the result was the university apologized, the lesson was removed from the curriculum, and that self-professed Christian instructor has been shifted to online only courses given resultant death threats.
Which I guess is a good demonstration of the power of symbolism. Or the power of power.
It’s been a long time since I taught anything like that American flag lesson. Even had one been, as was the case at FAU, in a departmentally approved textbook, I know that’s trouble I don’t need to buy. I started running a cost-benefit analysis of everything that came out of my mouth about a decade ago, and student engagement almost never balanced out the heft of job insecurity. “How many students are likely to be unhappy if I…question the merits of the Cold War…or discuss that there are views of morality that exist in the absence of belief in a divine power….how many of those students will then ding me on an evaluation, or worse, complain to the Dean…and how many of those complaints will it take before I lose my health insurance.” I don’t tweet, and one of the primary reasons is that Monday afternoon, the somewhat incendiary “On Fox News, someone’s about to say none this would have happened if the marathoners got to bring their own bombs to the race” fell out of my fingers. But the only person who read it was my mother and she’s unlikely to complain to my employer. The mass of men lead lives of quiet utilitarianism.
I can’t say that I loved college. But I loved the idea of college. I loved the idea that classrooms were places where thoughts could bounce off the walls like a trampoline park; I went to a not particularly invigorating school in a not particularly invigorating time in a not particularly invigorating part of Ohio and even I had a history professor within the first two months of my freshman year discuss the struggle of some marginalized group by quoting e.e. cummings:
I will not kiss your fucking flag….There is some shit I will not eat.
That was the fall of 1988. I neither say nor feel any similar sentiment. 25 years later, I kiss any flag that’s placed in front of me. I got bills and that’s how they get paid.
Even if that flag is just a doodle on a ripped in half piece of notebook paper.