Monday, October 20, 2014

Why I Like the Union Jack.

Why I Like the Union Jack.

I was recently in good old Park Ridge, Illinois for my 45th Maine South High School Reunion, with a free afternoon to hang out uptown.  Which reminded me of why I like the Union Jack.  I like the good old British flag for a number of reasons, not the least which is having lived in Canterbury for a year.  And it’s a great-looking flag.  But the most important reason is that the good old Union Jack once fluttered proudly above the streets of Park Ridge, on July 4, 1969, to be precise. 

Yes, it fluttered on a flag pole outside of Bob Rowe’s Evening Pipe Shop, proudly, and certainly not defiantly, amidst dozens of American flags lining the streets downtown for our national holiday.  We had taken the Jack to Maine East for the fireworks display the night before, waving it around a few times to the general merriment of anyone who noticed, then sitting on it like a beach blanket to watch the show.

So there we were the following afternoon – it may have been July 5th, I suppose – sitting outside the Shop when a couple of policemen emerged from City Hall across the street.  They advanced towards the shop looking even more grim and displeased than usual. 

One of them, the by-then notorious – to us teenagers - Sergeant Schueneman, growled: “Whose flag is this?”

“Not mine,” chirped a couple of us, which was quite true, for Bill Wood, the owner of the flag, was not there. 

The sergeant then proceeded to snap off the wooden pole, take the offending flag - of our mother country and NATO ally – turn around and disappear into City Hall, where the Park Ridge Police to this day maintain their headquarters.  We dashed into the Shop, found Bob Rowe, the owner and our benevolent protector, and shouted:

“Bob!  Bob!  They’ve taken the flag!  Sergeant Schueneman just stole the Union Jack!  He just walked over here and broke the pole and took it!”

Amidst much more shouting and confusion, Bob calmly took the phone, dialed the police station and held his hand up for quiet.  Upon reaching the desk sergeant, said loudly and firmly:

“One of your policemen just came over here to the Pipe Shop and took a British flag.   That flag is private property and has been in the family for years.  You have no right to take that flag whatsoever.  I am coming across the street to the station right now, and I expect to get it back.”

He marched out the front door, all five feet two inches of him, across Hodges Park and into City Hall.  We held our breath.  Barely two minutes later, he emerged with the flag and we burst into cheers. 
So I am happy to cheer for both the American flag and the Union Jack, two symbols of limited government, rule of law and much else that is good. 

Friday, October 10, 2014

Monuments to Freedom

This post also appears on my friend Dan Philpott's site, Arc of the Universe.  
Dan is Professor of Political Science and Peace Studies 
at the University of Notre Dame 
and Director of The Center for Civil and Human Rights.

Architecture is embodied values.  From the humblest temporary dwelling to the grandest monument, buildings reveal what a society values.  As Kenneth Clark put it at the beginning of Civilisation, his famous television series of some forty years ago:  “If I had to say which was telling the truth about society:  a speech by the minister of housing or the actual buildings put up in his time - I should believe the buildings.”

I have spent much of the past two decades studying the buildings of the nation’s capital as a way of understanding this vast nation, now doubled in population since I was born in 1951.  The waves of building up and tearing down in Washington indeed parallel what has happened in the rest of the nation:  enormous growth and confidence in the 1950s and early 60s; vast upheavals and disruptions in the late 60s and 70s, the era of the downtown street demonstration, the growth of the suburbs and interstate system, and the withering of the inner city.  More recently we are observing in Washington and elsewhere a resurgence of the inner city as the population continues to increase and suburbs outgrow the ability of railroads and highways to get people back into the city to work and to recreate.

As a scholar of religion, what I study in particular are the memorials in this city whose task it is to put up monuments that proclaim our common values, evaluate our history and pass on to future generations the lessons that the living have so painstakingly learned.

In this regard, despite the growth and turmoil, Washington has changed remarkably little.  It is still a city iconically defined by five classical buildings that mark out east, west, north, south and center, making the city itself an enormous compass:  Capitol, Lincoln Memorial, White House, Jefferson Memorial, Washington Monument.  Each one is sedulously classical, or traditional, if you prefer, especially the Capitol, with domes, pillars, pilasters, porticos, pediments, architraves, the works.  You might say that the Washington Monument is even older than classical, being an obelisk, of Egyptian origin.  These buildings have not changed significantly in over sixty years, nor are they likely to, and their fundamental message remains the same:  what Americans value over everything else is freedom. 

A lot of water has come down the Potomac and a lot world-shattering events taken place since this configuration reached its completion in the still-dark days of World War II.  At the dedication of the Jefferson Memorial on April 13, 1943, Jefferson’s birthday, President Roosevelt said, "Today, in the midst of a great war for freedom, we dedicate a shrine to freedom."  At no time in world history before or since had freedom been so threatened and the need for united action against its enemies been so great.  Fortunately this nation and its allies mustered the necessary unity and a greater percentage of people on earth now enjoy some measure of any number of freedoms than ever.

Nonetheless, many threats to freedom remain and we Americans argue amongst ourselves, as we must, about how to face these threats and how to balance freedom with other public values.  How the other classical memorials and the many recent ones reflect this argument will be the subject of subsequent postings.