Flag and Country Bumpkins

Much of the yelping was grotesque, some of it was only silly.
One Elvis impersonator asked a defender of the art, "What if your mother's head was in that toilet? Think about it, darh-lin'."

But most of the veterans didn't talk like bigoted morons. They and their supporters just wanted to see a little more respect shown to the flag that so many of their friends had died defending.

Later in the day, I asked the museum's director, Jim Ballinger, why he let the veterans dismantle the exhibits. I asked him three or four different ways, and I never did get a straight answer.

It was like watching a snake, slipping and sliding, trying to form right angles.

All of the slithering boiled down to one thing: Ballinger had decided that he didn't want any further trouble.

And what's that supposed to mean, I asked.
Suppose me and a few other middle-aged sour apples jump in the car, get jacked up on AC/DC and come down to the cowboy art show you stage every year and just start dismantling the exhibit, saying this drivel isn't fit for human consumption. If that happens, Jim, you're going to be saying, "Hey, Mike, it's okay. Just go a little easier on the espresso next time. That's your response?"

Yeah, I didn't think so.
Later that afternoon, though, I got a very uneasy feeling. I realized that Ballinger's behavior had a precedent.

Twenty-six years ago this month, this newspaper started with a flag fight.
When four kids were shot dead at Kent State University in 1970, thousands of students at Arizona State University surrounded the school's flagpole and demanded that the stars and stripes be lowered to half staff.

Then-governor Jack Williams ordered the flag defended at all costs, but only a small handful of cops stood between the mob and the mayhem. The head of campus security, a former FBI agent named John Duffy, ignored the governor and lowered the flag to avoid bloodshed.

You know how kids are; no one knew what to ask for next, so we broke up and went home.

The first story in the first issue of New Times was an interview with a construction worker at the Kent State candlelight vigil in Tempe. The interview was interrupted when the laborer excused himself long enough to punch out the teeth of an antiwar leader nearby who had a flag sewn upside down on his blue jeans.

Feelings ran high in those days, on both sides of the fight about Vietnam. Looking back, I can see that Duffy did a very good thing when he lowered the flag that day.

No one wanted any more killing back in 1970. We just wanted a little respect shown with the flag for dead comrades--which is just what the veterans at Sunday's demonstration wanted.

The white-trash farmers at SRP would like to stifle any family fights about the flag. They'd prefer that Ballinger stick to exhibits like that cloying, goofy Norman Rockwell retrospective the museum mounted last year.

But there is something to recommend a little public brawling about patriotism. Oh, sure, Ballinger has ducked a confrontation with the veterans, whom he could have had arrested whenever they molested the art. But like Duffy 26 years ago, the museum director has kept the peace while the debate raged on.

Sometimes, I just get cold-cocked by a bureaucrat's tedious maturity.
And I'll tell you something else. The very thought that I have to share the flag with the miserable, simple-minded Legionnaires who flocked to the museum Sunday made me realize just how irritating it is to be an American.


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