Flag and Country Bumpkins
My parents were the sort of folks, God bless them, who taught me that it is not very polite to poke a sharp stick into the eye of a handicapped person, unless of course you are jabbing a farmer or one of his kin.
Dad, a suspicious, big-city greaser, didn't just think that most lunch-bucket-head farmers were hillbilly-willful about marrying their cousins (though he thought that was obviously the case). He also believed them louts, people whose inflamed-prostate meanness kept alive those quaint rural customs of screwing your neighbors in business deals and hosing half to death any town dweller unlucky enough to find himself in the outback.
We are talking about farmers today because the cartel of bib-overalled cotton growers, orchard pickers and wheat threshers who control the local water and electric utility--the Salt River Project--has decided to try to dictate what appears at the Phoenix Art Museum.
Several hundred World War II-era vets staged a demonstration Sunday at the museum, demanding that the show "Old Glory: The American Flag in Contemporary Art" be taken down. A handful of the protesters--and you have to see these people up close and listen to them fulminating about lesbian conspiracies to fully appreciate the diversity of the human gene pool--dismantled specific pieces of art in the exhibit.
Curators appeared, at first glance, to be so intimidated by the political atmosphere in Phoenix that they let these Iwo Jima yokels repeatedly violate the museum's own art. The museum's administrators don't want trouble.
Well, I do.
It's a fine how-do-you-do when the cultural elite in Phoenix is mau-maued by a bunch of old goats who should have been swept off the plaza with snake shot the first time they reached out to desecrate a piece of art.
And I blame the farmers for this atmosphere. They sent the clear message to the museum that the local establishment would squat down with the butt-ignorant Boogie Woogie Bugle Boys From Company B who are opposing the flag exhibit.
The crop of bucolics at SRP doesn't much like the current show about the American flag. Too controversial. Too disrespectful. So the farmers have yanked funding the museum was counting on and rebuffed requests to underwrite other events.
Against the advice of the normal people who actually operate SRP, the board of directors representing these farmers announced on April 12 that it was pulling the plug on $29,000 in potential arts funding to express irritation with the flag exhibit.
With that funding cut, SRP's farmers, who control an enterprise that churns $1.4 billion annually, lit the torches for the shiftless cretins who want to burn down the museum.
Next thing you knew, the Dial Corporation, a Fortune 500 company, through the person of honcho John Teets, was dissing the exhibit.
Teets, who at the age of 62 still tries to impress women by lifting weights, is fond of blathering to the press about his relationship with Jesus Christ. That any newspaper would give this wavy-haired salami the time of day is testimony enough to the state of civic leadership in Phoenix.
Once the corporate farmers and the business executives chewed through the museum curator's hamstrings, the political hyenas closed in for the organ meat.
Senator John McCain, our former POW, condemned the exhibit . . . and weren't we all surprised. Politicians with war wounds never miss a media opportunity to bind their scar tissue in Old Glory, as if the flag only belonged to pilots who bombed the Vietnamese and not to those Americans who were part of the antiwar movement.
Presidential hopeful Bob Dole, like the always-annoyed senior citizen that he is, attacked the artwork without having seen it.
Even patriotic draft dodgers like Newt Gingrich went off on the exhibit, saying it ought to be torn down--and, no, he didn't need to look at the show, either, to know it was degenerate.
Like a fat boy with a mouthful of Reddi Wip, Newt was intoxicated with the taste of his own saccharine-coated slops. He liked it so much he went back for seconds; after denouncing the museum once in Washington, D.C., he blathered about it again here in Phoenix on Friday.
Not that Arizona residents needed politicians to get them riled up. They were already a-ridin' and a-ropin'.
The peasants with pitchforks, as Patrick Buchanan has so charmingly described the know-nothing rabble that voted for him, began massing in town squares to protest the exhibit. Military veterans, mostly older gentlemen who have tiny peaches for heads and are so withered they look like hairless Shar-peis in funny little Legionnaire caps, were joined by meth-peddling bikers. Together, they found common ground by demonstrating at the museum against the show.
It could have been an outtake from a John Mellencamp music video.
I loved all of the yelling and marching back and forth. It made you proud to see Arizonans screaming about something other than whether we ought to be hanging Mexicans who slip across the border.
What I didn't much like was the sleazy, hardball blackmail the farmers at Salt River Project pulled. We ought to have this argument about the flag among ourselves, without a pack of farmers trying to choke off the museum's windpipe. What kind of punk move is that?
And another thing, as long as we're raving: How did all these hayseeds at SRP get so rich that they had grant money to parcel out to the Phoenix Art Museum in the first place?
Most people don't know the actual, true story of how the farmers of SRP got over on the taxpayers. It's a conspiracy of silence.
These barnyard Medici, these patrons of the arts, have cash to spill because they've lived on the government dole from the turn of the century right up to the present.
Which isn't all that unusual in agriculture, anywhere in America. Except our local farmers have figured out so many added-value twists, so many Robert Vesco/Don King hustles, that I am always tempted to become a Sam Donaldson rancher whenever I am reminded of SRP's contract with America.
And I am always reminded when SRP does something like tell me what kind of art I can look at.
In order to understand how the farmers stole enough money to begin thinking that people should care about the cultural opinions of sod busters, you have to look closely at the photographs of the farmers' territorial ancestors in Arizona.
You see that woman in the corner of the photograph, the feral-looking crone who bears no resemblance at all to Isabella Rossellini. She's the mother in the family portrait of 19th-century Arizona farmers, and she's the problem.
She married Clem, the lanky fugitive on the other side of the picture, a manic-depressive who, in one of his cresting, jagged mood swings, moved this poor female to the Valley of the Sun.
There were no air conditioners then. There were no evaporative coolers.
There was no electricity for fans. There was no water, except during floods.
There was only the sun. For five months of the year, the temperature climbed above 100 degrees every day.
The weather took its toll. Mother buried half the children she bore in Arizona, and upon the remainder she bestowed biblical names . . . Jebediah, Ezekiel, Rufus . . . in absolute faith that only God could spare her and hers from the punishing desert heat.
In the winter, mother survived on insects.
At the turn of the century, Arizona's farmers went to Washington, D.C., with a simple request.
You have to help us, said the farmers. Our women are living like Apaches.
The public relations people at SRP claim there was more to it than white women living like Indians; they are referring to all the contracts the lawyers wrote to cover the deal that created SRP. But, in the beginning, it was all about East Coast women moving West and going native.
The federal government had a simple solution to the farmers' plight.
The government built a series of six dams, with our taxpayer dollars, around the Valley. The dams created lakes that stored enormous quantities of water. The government sold the water to the landowners at such a low price that even farmers could finally afford the cost of a bath.
There were other benefits. Farmers now had access to such large volumes of water that they could raise traditional desert crops like oranges and grapefruits.
The dams also generated electricity. The feds turned over the utility business to the farmers.
Just like that, the farmers had a monopoly on power. They sold themselves electricity at bargain rates. The farmers also peddled kilowatts and water to the rest of us.
Soon farmers were making so much money that they were able to pay back the government for the cost of building the dams.
But the farmers were not done pillaging the system.
Water, and the electricity to pump it, was so cheap that the farmers grew crops, like cotton, that the free market didn't need. Farmers demanded that the rest of us give them cash subsidies for harvests no one wanted. And we did.
Last year, farmers in Maricopa County, where SRP is king, took in approximately $1 million in federal taxpayer subsidies.
Sandy Leander at SRP said she can't even estimate what the six dams we built for farmers would cost in today's dollars. No kidding. A recent modification to Roosevelt Dam cost more than $400 million by itself.
Let's just say that the farmers of SRP have been suckling off a multibillion-dollar government teat for almost a century.
After nearly 100 years of this kind of swindle, the wives of SRP farmers are awash in air conditioning and downtime. Wallowing in leisure, rural homemakers have discovered the humor of Junior Samples, and registered Republican, and developed a real attitude about that Hillary Rodham Clinton bitch.
It was neck-and-neck fighting the elements back there in the 19th century, but today it is clear that the wives of tractor drivers no longer live like Pimas. Farmers today get better federal handouts than the local Indians, without the bother of having to live on a reservation.
The good life did come with a string or two attached.
Shamed by the sheer heft of the federal giveaway to Valley farmers, the federal government said that because SRP had this lucrative power monopoly, maybe it would look better if the utility company's board of directors were elected by its customers--including the city dwellers who purchased so much electricity and water from the farmers.
But here again, Uncle Sam got ripped off by the farmers.
The deal the farmers at SRP had was so sweet that they resolved never to let democracy screw it up.
The board of directors of Salt River Project believed that the notion of one person, one vote--the notion that governed the rest of America--was a poor model.
The farmers decided that the more acres you owned, the more votes you got when it came time to elect the governors of SRP.
This colonial, one-acre/one-vote approach to ruling was challenged in court by the local William Kuntsler set over at the Center for Law in the Public Interest, which took the case all the way to the United States Supreme Court.
In Washington, D.C., the highest judges in the land sided with SRP. In a 5-to-4 split, the justices ruled that farmers were too stupid to compete on a level playing field. One acre, one vote was affirmed as the law of SRP land.
In the 1994 election for the board, a mere 22 farmers with large landholdings controlled the outcome of the vote.
Is it any wonder that these hog callers love my flag?
And still these gimme-cap gluttons wanted more.
To protect their subsidies, the farmers decided that they fancied having another politician in their pocket. They put their loaf-of-bread heads together, and the next thing anyone knew, Arizona's newest senator in Washington was Jon Kyl, SRP lobbyist and lawyer.
And, yes, he too has come out publicly, blasting the Phoenix Art Museum and the flag show.
Here's the point.
Having availed themselves of billions of dollars from the public till, you'd think Arizona farmers would have the decency to just shut up, plow their fields and drive their K-car Oldsmobiles to market.
You'd think the sod busters at Salt River Project would be so grateful for what America has given them that when any cultural organization approached them for a donation, they'd be glad to pitch in quietly.
The farmers are back from their vacations in Branson, Missouri, and these docents in dung-covered brogans have opinions on the flag art exhibit. It's unpatriotic, they say.
When it comes to the flag exhibit, the only people who have behaved as shabbily as the farmers at SRP are the Phoenix Art Museum leaders who sucked up their gonads at the first sign of trouble and then spouted duplicitous nonsense from beneath their sun umbrellas to appease the rednecks.
Listening to museum representatives rationalize the controversial items in the show will give you a real, castor-oil lube job.
Two pieces of flag art have everyone puckered up: Dread Scott's "What Is the Proper Way to Display the U.S. Flag?" which invites viewers to step on a flag draped upon the floor while they sign a guest register; and Kate Millett's "The American Dream Goes to Pot," which features a wooden jail cell containing a porcelain commode with a flag stuffed in it. Tres subtle.
Speaking to Legionnaires on a local television show, Scott Jacobsen, arts maven and Arizona Public Service Company exec, defended the flag-on-the-floor pimp by suggesting that it was a good way for little children to learn that you don't step on the flag. He kept trying to convince the grizzly vets that the show was a learning experience.
Do you think that a college-aged artist who changed his name to "Dread Scott" wanted little kids to learn how you properly fold the flag? Or do you think he was picking his nose in public?
Jacobsen's learning-experience malarkey insults what little intelligence the aging Legionnaires still possess. And when you condescend to the veterans, you reinforce what they already believe: that a cultural elite runs places like the Phoenix Art Museum. That's the exact phrase Newt Gingrich used when he castigated the show last week.
And Newt and the Legionnaires are correct. They are not going to see their political values reflected in a museum show of Right to Life Art.
There is a cultural elite that puts on these kinds of shows. I can live with that. The Legionnaires got all the politicians.
Instead of telling the veterans what time it is--letting them know that their artistic opinions don't mean squat to the people who run museums--Jacobsen explained to the Legionnaires that no one likes the Kate Millett piece.
While Jacobsen tried to create a coffee-klatsch environment, other museum types lost their composure entirely.
Curator David S. Rubin, who put the show together, went out to address the wattle-necked warriors at a demonstration outside the museum on March 24. As soon as one of the retired veterans raised his voice, Rubin bolted from the plaza, heading for the sanctuary of the museum. But Rubin didn't have a key to let himself back in.
So he started power-pummeling the glass with his fists, like Judy Garland with a locked bathroom door between her and her meds.
The demonstration this past Sunday was much larger than the March affair; some estimates put the count at 2,500 people, pro and con, who wanted to fight about the exhibit.
The demonstration was about what these things always are about--speechifying. There was some fearful music by a group of kids with that shaved, Anglo-Saxon hair thing that's going around. They and their scoutmaster leader belted out, "It fills my heart with rapture that God gave to me."
It was hotter than hell outside, and there wasn't a cold beer within walking distance. One MIT graduate bobby-pinned a couple of paper towels to her hair, thinking that might cool off her about-to-explode skull. Luckily, none of the geezers went into cardiac arrest.
We were duly warned that "they" want to take Bibles out of school and put condoms in.
By the time the statewide president of the Elks said he hoped he would "never see such a provocative display again," people were beelining for the air-conditioned museum.
And that's when the fun started.
I know it's not polite to mock the way someone looks. But it is kind of fun, and, frankly, a lot of these people looked like they crawled out of the pages of an R. Crumb comic book. You just couldn't help but stare. One old veteran standing near the museum entry had cob webs tattooed on both elbows. (Now, I like tattoos, but here's a message for all you teens out there: When you get old and your skin goes all flappy, tattoos are some somber reminders of the time when you still got hickeys.)
The vet was venting when I wandered in.
"I'm not going in there," he said, indicating the rooms with the flag exhibit.
Referring to the flag stuffed in the loo, he explained, "If I go in there, I know I'm going to pull it out."
Two seconds later, he marched up to the Kate Millett piece.
He read the sign describing Millett and learned she was a feminist. "Didn't that just figure?" he said out loud.
After a pause, he asked his sidekick, "Are you ready to go to jail?"
"It wouldn't be the first time," came the reply, and I thought, "Oh boy, hear come the salty road-dog stories."
Instead, the first vet reached between the cell bars of Millett's piece and extracted the flag, which he folded smartly and stored on the top of the artist's display.
Laura Mumby, probably a feminist, reached up, unfolded the flag and jammed it back into Millett's toilet. People cheered.
An artist herself, Mumby said she was furious on previous visits to the show when the flags had been absent from the Millett and Scott displays because veterans had removed them.
"I thought the museum was lame to let these people get away with that," said Mumby. So she and fellow artists camped out at the exhibit with the idea of protecting the work from the veterans. They were not alone.
An incensed witness accused the Legionnaires of acting like Fascist book burners.
"Why don't you go back to Jerusalem, or Ethiopia?" came the rejoinder from yet another vet, who now began to argue loudly with anyone who wasn't a nearly dead veteran.
This fellow was a gem. He's at that point in his life when old men wear caps, even indoors; when a few wisps of hair, each individual strand several inches from its nearest neighbor, slip out the backside of the hat. It's the age when any normal guy starts copying down Kevorkian's 1-800 number.
As the television cameras moved in, this vet started rapping about lesbians and feminists.
"How many of you girls even been in the military?" asked the veteran.
When Susan Barber began to debate the little troll, he told the lady, who is of half-Korean ancestry, that she ought to go back to whatever country it was that she came from.
Barber, natty in her flag-decorated footwear, exploded that she was born in America.
From across the room, two black women asked in loud voices, "Why are the TV cameras focused only on old white men?"
"Bring your nigger faces over here, and they'll film you," said the exasperated veteran. At this point, some pointy-headed liberal told this cracker that he wasn't much of an American.
"We'll take care of you later," threatened the vet.
One young woman who spoke with an accent and defended the show clearly got under the skin of the veterans and their fellow travelers.
"This is very interesting," said Anne McKinney, formerly Anne Haack of Germany. "I've been called an asshole twice today already. My mother grew up in Berlin during World War II. I heard all about the Nazis and free speech from her. . . . I'm a United States citizen now, and I vote in every election, even the little bond elections that no one follows."
People had surrounded all four sides of Millett's jail cell and were arguing heatedly with each other. Faces pushed through the bars as individuals fought over what the flag meant.
It was quite something.
A photographer standing nearby said people normally only get this worked up over sports. It was great, said the man, to see folks so animated, so ready to fight about art and democracy. He thought that Millet's jail cell now looked like one of those free-for-all wrestling cages.
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.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.